Weekly Varia no. 28, 05/27/23

I spend altogether too much time thinking about how many books I will never read in my life.

Perhaps this is thought is bleak. I read as much as I can and consider myself fortunate to have made my way into a field where not only am I surrounded by books, but also I have to read as a professional obligation. Publishing and criticism seemed somewhat more unattainable, and my current job lets me engage other passions as well. Curating to-read lists is an process I find relaxing. But while I also enjoy looking back at all of the books I have read, these processes always remind me of all the books I haven’t.

Back in January I set an ambitious but not impossible reading target for this year: 100 books across the lists I keep. For context, this would mark a 10–15 book bump over each of the past two years. Certainly not impossible, but ambitious. As of this writing, I am more or less on pace. I have finished 37 books so far and will likely push that number over 40 before the end of the month, with all three of my biggest reading months (June, July, December) still to ahead of me in the year. But this target gives me flares of anxiety when I think about it because of how slowly I feel like I’m reading, especially since there are weeks when my “currently reading” section at the bottom of this post carries over from week to week. Most of the time I am able to remind myself that these things are immaterial. Getting worked up about listing the same book week after week when it is taking me longer than anticipated is a concern about how my appearance bleeding into whether I’m reading enough, whatever that might be, and books are meant to be savored, not rushed.

But this concern then cycles back into my existential concerns about books left unread. On my to-read shelf in my home office I have 40 academic books I have not yet read, with another three that I need to re-read in preparation to teach this year. I also have 40 books I’m looking to read out of interest, along with another 13 e-books in my Kindle library. Then there are the books in my campus office and hundreds more on various reading lists, to say nothing of the books being released every week and those yet unpublished. Put another way, I already have more books in my queue than I expect to be able to read this year, even if I were to not acquire a single additional book by either purchase or library. This is not necessarily a problem since I largely subscribe to the idea of an anti-library where unread books themselves have power and value, but the numbers add up. If I were to hit my target this year and then hit one hundred books every year until I hit the age of retirement in this country, I would read fewer than three thousand books in that span, while American publishers put out 304,912 new or re-issued books in 2013. I am not going to be the target audience for all of those books, but the sheer scale of the books left unread sometimes stops me in my tracks.

This week’s varia:

  • Pasts Imperfect features new volumes on diversifying Classics, along with an In Memoriam for Ray Stevenson by Monica Cyrino whose work focuses on the reception of the Ancient World in film. Stevenson died this week at 58. Salve atque vale, Titus Pullo.
  • Amber beads from the Ziggurat of Assur dated to c.1800 BCE have been identified as coming from near the Baltic or North Sea. We know about long-distance trade taking place in this period, but every new piece of evidence for identifying the networks is exciting.
  • Fecal analysis from ancient toilets in Jerusalem have identified a parasite that can cause dysentery, the earliest evidence for the disease.
  • Monica H. Green and André Filipe Oliveira da Silva lay out some evidence that the Black Death had arrived in Europe in the thirteenth century. The old hypothesis about the Siege of Kaffa in the 1340s being the plague vector is based on weak foundations that has been proven false in recent years through multiple different types of studies, and Green is one of the pioneering historians offering a new history of this disease.
  • This was a cool video of the Murud-Janjira fort in the Arabian Sea.
  • New scans by a company called Magellan Ltd has produced high-definition scans of the Titanic, which sank in 1912 after striking an iceberg. The pictures are quite remarkable.
  • John Warner makes a case against the techno-futurists (my term) who see potential in ChatGPT, stressing again that this should be an opportunity to revise our assignments toward meaningful learning experiences. You know, like thinking.
  • Michigan graduate students are on strike and have been for weeks while (largely bad faith) negotiations drag on. Now that the end of the semester has arrived, departments are complying with pressure to make up grades.
  • A Republican district chair in Georgia—one who challenged Kemp for the Republican gubernatorial nomination and then refused to concede defeat—gave an interview in which she declared that globes are everywhere in a conspiracy to brainwash people into thinking that the world is round.
  • Arizona, California, and Nevada agreed to cut about 13% of their water use from the Colorado River, in return for compensation from the federal government for about 2/3 of that allotment and at least a temporary end to the threat of unilateral water cuts by the federal government. This is still probably too little, too late, but every little bit helps.
  • In political news worthy of respect, here is a piece about how John Fetterman’s recent medical issues have followed a playbook for de-stigmatizing mental health. As someone who both struggles with mental health and struggles to talk about it, the article is worth thinking about and Fetterman’s actions worth applauding.
  • Stewart Rhodes, the founder of the Proud Boys was sentenced to 18 years in prison this week for charges related to the events of January 6. Despite the sentence coming in short of the length sought by prosecutors, the judge in this case seems to be taking the threat posed by the Oath Keepers seriously, saying that he posed a peril to the country because he “wants democracy…to devolve into violence.”
  • The man who drove his truck into the White House security barrier has been identified as Sai Varshith Kandula, an Indian-American man, who is alleged to have stated that his goal was to kill the president and take over the country. Reminder that it one doesn’t need to be white to embrace nazism and India is one of multiple countries in the grips of an authoritarian ethno-nationalist movement.
  • House Republicans were joined by two Democrats in repealing President Biden’s partial student debt forgiveness plan under the Congressional Review Act—a measure that might also require borrowers to retroactively pay interest during the period when repayment was paused. The repayment plan is estimated to cost roughly 30 billion dollars per year for the next decade, which sounds like a lot of money until you consider that it is equivalent to roughly three percent of the budget for the defense department.
  • The Washington Post has a story about the recent wave of book bans that has a remarkable graphic: just 11 people accounted for more than 60% of all book challenges. This constitutes a tyranny of the minority where a tiny number of people can dictate what is and is not appropriate for everyone, with most of the complaints coming after the complainant heard about the book from media. One school district in Florida received a request to ban Amanda Gorman’s poem “The Hill We Climb” because it was “not educational and have indirectly hate messages” and could cause “confusion and indoctrination.” One might note that the complaint came from someone confused since it identified the author as Oprah Winfrey. Or perhaps it is of note that the same person has subsequently apologized for sharing a summary of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion on Facebook, claiming that her opposition is rooted in anti-communism, that English isn’t her primary language, and that she isn’t a book person. The last link is worth reading because it underscores a number of concurrent issues with the current political discourse.
  • Officials in Ron DeSantis’ administration seem to tracking which lobbyists are donating to his presidential campaign and soliciting donations from those who have not paid, in what appears to be a pretty clear, likely illegal, abuse of his office.
  • Mark Joseph Sterns has several pieces at Slate about the Supreme Court. In one, he talks about how media cycles tend to focus on a given case for only a short time when these decisions compound one another in terms of fundamentally reshaping society—away from justice, he says. In another, he addresses Neil Gorsuch’s facially absurd claims that Covid public health policies were “the greatest intrusions on civil liberties in the peacetime of this country.” Gorsuch’s decision simply ignores the long history of intrusions in this country and underscores that the court is political to its core.
  • The Albany Times Union has a story about how three men say they were recruited to come to a diner where they were to portray homeless veterans “displaced” by migrants. A gross political stunt on every level, and another example where people from talking heads to Kevin McCarthy picked up on the story generated by the stunt rather than the stunt itself.
  • A new story about scams that are using Trump’s name and his fanatical supporters to sell commemorative objects like “Trump Bucks.” These campaigns use AI voices to promise that these can be redeemed for value at banks and retailers, while the fine-print says that they are memorabilia. This story reminds me that I saw the most accursed book ever printed in Barnes and Noble yesterday: a collection of letters to and from Trump, along with “his” commentary.
  • During the evacuation of Khartoum, the US embassy shredded passports held there, trapping the holders of those passports in a war zone. This is standard operating procedure not exclusive to the United States, but it is also hard to ignore the people who are trapped by such a policy.

Album of the Week: Pixie and the Partygrass Boys, The Chicken Coop, vol. 1 (2023)

Currently Reading: Umberto Eco, Baudolino; Dara Horn, People Love Dead Jews; Johanna Hanink, The Classical Debt

The Altar of Academic Overproduction

Do publications define someone as an academic success? More to the point, do publications demonstrate one’s potential for scholarship?

These are both pressing questions for contingent faculty members who almost never have research as part of their contract and yet are assessed on their potential for research when being considered for tenure-track jobs. I have written here several times how I approached my research as a second job, though my current position allows me to integrate teaching and research even though the latter is not technically part of my contract.

With this in mind, one might ask when is the right time to publish. Job ads generally look for the potential for high-impact publishing, which should certainly include promising graduate students who have yet to publish anything, but it also might mean that because I just published my dissertation book and work on teaching contracts I might need to show some progress on my next book project before I’ll be seriously viable for research positions given that as soon as I am hired I am on a clock to finish the next thing or lose my job. My last book should prove that I can publish, but that track record is only good if it can support a trajectory toward future potential.

But the words that I often think about in those ads are “high impact.” These words mean different things to different people, and even more different things in different fields. When I was a newly-minted PhD my institution was just getting caught up with impact metrics, so it of course surprised me to learn that most history publications simply weren’t indexed at the institution. And probably for good reason. You can find impact metrics for classics journals, but this will only take you so far. According to one, the two journals with the two highest impact factors are Ancient Philosophy and the Journal of Roman Studies, neither of which are viable publication venues for my research, and I would dispute the quality of some of the other highly-ranked journals. This is not a field with Nature or The New England Journal of Medicine.

Moreover, I have heard differing opinions about when students ought to start publishing original research. I know of people who discourage junior graduate students from trying to publish prematurely. The work of publishing extend the time of completion for publications that might not move the needle in a job search at best, and, at worst, “immature” publications might attach the student’s name to subpar work. My advisor, by contrast, had me send off a revised version of a seminar paper as a second year MA student—a paper, I might add, that was duly rejected with a multi-page reviewer critique. I agreed with the rejection enough that I scrapped that paper and didn’t submit my own research again until I published a note with Classical Quarterly midway through my PhD that I had accepted with revisions upon first submission. I don’t personally subscribe a hard and fast rule, but, based on my own experiences, I generally think that students reach a point where their research is ready for publication later in graduate school than earlier.

Much like early-career graduate students, some undergraduates might have the command of both the primary evidence and scholarship to publish peer-reviewed scholarship and there are some fields where students can be sufficiently involved in research projects that their names end up on publications, but neither of these should be an expectation before graduate school. Learning how to do this work is literally one of the purposes of graduate school. Making admissions decisions based on these publications rewards students with structural advantages in their undergraduate institutions more than selecting students based on their research potential. No system will level the playing fields in this respect, but publications strikes me as a particularly insidious factor. Admittedly, I have not seen much evidence of this happening, but I am opposed to it in any field. Certainly, I would not have been admitted to graduate school if that were the expectation.

So you can imagine my reaction to this Pro Publica report on new companies like Scholar Launch designed to help get high school students published in “peer reviewed journals” by having them work with renowned scholars whose names are noticeably absent from the program forms that only list their academic rank and affiliation. All for the low, low fee of several thousand dollars.

The article opens with the story of a high school student who went through the program, a sophomore who explains that “Nowadays, having a publication is kind of a given.” Then comes a description of her project, a marketing strategy analysis for Chick-fil-A that was “published” on a journal’s online pre-print platform.

Schemes to get children into the “right” schools are nothing new, but I have to say that I prefer the old-fashioned grift like paying for a building or bribing the water polo coach to have your student be classified as a “recruit.” I find these programs much more insidious, by contrast. While those of us at most schools are hearing only bleak prognostications about the impending demographic cliff, the application numbers are soaring at the most elite schools, while only further fuels the aura of exclusivity. The result is programs like Scholar Launch that mask a pay-for-play system that rewards families with the means behind a cloak of merit all for a chance at getting access to the most elite schools.

In this arms race only the appearance of merit matters. Internships and educational opportunities are never going to be equally distributed, but I would never begrudge students legitimate opportunities for learning or engagement. After all, this is the premise behind taking a challenging course load and engaging in extra-curricular activities or internships. Publications, though, are fundamentally different from these other forms of engagement.

What is the point of a publication? Or, even more broadly, what is the point of writing?

To paraphrase Umberto Eco, the purpose of writing is to be read. Secondarily, to paraphrase John Warner, writing is a form of thinking. So you write to put your thoughts in order so that someone else may read them. Peer-reviewed academic articles are in their purest form a contribution to an ongoing discussion about a field of study. They are meant to be read, considered, and responded to by other people working or interested in the same field of study.

Whereas, the point of these publications is to be listed on the application, to give the appearance that your child has what it takes to “change the world” in some nebulous, ill-defined way because they were able to publish an article in high school. Who cares if anyone reads it? Or whether it is great? It was published in a “peer-reviewed” journal, which makes it sound substantial and scholarly, just like the journals that academics publish their work in. Never mind what “peer-reviewed” means for high school students or that these journals exist solely to showcase high school work.

I understand that both students and parents place an enormous importance on getting into the “right” school, by which they usually mean the most prestigious school that will unlock every door, but this attitude is deeply toxic. In addition to moving cycles of anxiety and burnout younger and younger, it internalizes two counter-productive ideas.

First, it underscores the false notion that students need to already have these skills and ideas. College, for instance, should be a time when students are developing many foundational skills. Setting an apparent expectation like this about what they should know creates an environment with heightened anxiety for students who think they’re behind frustration for students who discover a gap between what they think they know and how they perform in class.

Second is a sense that seeming is more important than being. If you seem smart or accomplished or charitable, then whether or not you are those things is almost besides the point. Obviously it is possible to wash out after gaining admission, but many of these systems are more set up to exclude people at the point of entry than to drive them out once they’re in. Thus being at the “right” school is more important than being at the school that will give you the best education. Besides, the former can be judge by the school’s prestige, while the latter can be hard to assess before you arrive on campus—or even until years after you graduate.

In truth, these paper mills are responding to a system that sacrifices at the altar of academic overproduction. A system that identifies publications as the highest virtue and often rewards short-term impact of ideas. And academic administration that would prefer to flatten the differences between fields so that the apples and oranges can be evenly judged as indistinct fruit pulp—how else can you compare scholars in one field where people write numerous co-authored publications based on lab work with those in a field where a productive scholar might put out a single sole-authored article a year and a book every few years? In this context it only to be expected that admissions officers might reward a student whose application shows that they already have a publication, irrespective of its topic or quality.

There is no easy panacea. These programs are a metastatic cancer that formed deep in how we assess academic success. But I also think that this makes it all the more important for people in a world increasingly defined by anxiety and burnout to collectively resist its acceleration. For academics to resist the cult of productivity, for students to focus on the process of learning over the appearance of achievement, for admissions officers to resist the allure of purchased credentials, and for numerous places in the wider culture to stop setting Harvard and other similarly exclusive schools as the benchmark for success in higher education.

Easier said than done.

One Year of Specs Grading: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Spring semester 2023 is in the books. It actually has been in the books for a few days, though I have spent the time since working on wrapping up its ragged ends.

In truth, this was a second consecutive brutally difficult semester, making the 2022/23 school year one of the most difficult of my career. In addition to a series of crises external to what happened in the classroom, I was also teaching three new classes: upper level surveys on Ancient Rome and Persia, and a first year seminar. The demographics of that first year seminar were particularly challenging such that I had to functionally re-write the syllabus midway through the semester and I had one student so difficult that I came to dread walking into that classroom.

I wrestled the semester into submission eventually. My Persia class might be my favorite class I have ever taught, in large part because of the mix of students, and my revised first year seminar syllabus along with a slightly different approach to discussion allowed my students to pick up on the themes and skills that are most important for the course. In each of these three classes I was also able to build trust with the students that we were able to largely weather the techpocalypse ransomware attack that took down the network two weeks before the end of the semester. The outpouring of comments from students in the last few weeks was enormously moving, but I also want to recognize how hard I had to work to get there.

However, by way of semester retrospective, I want to focus on one academic year using Specifications Grading. I adopted this system because it promised to make my life easier, and my spring changes like an UnGrading system to assess participation and taking attendance every day worked, but, one year in, I am left wondering whether a specs model is the right fit for most of my classes.

The Good

My favorite part of specs grading is not assigning grades to assignments. The obsession with grades is deeply rooted in students, but grades themselves are often a poor match for learning. Specifications, by contrast, clearly establishes my expectations and, at least in theory, gives the students guidance on how they can earn credit for an assignment. This is still a form of grading, but the expectations provide a framework within which the students can learn and my feedback can focus on whether the student has met the expectation for that assignment. Moreover, the grades are earned across categories, meaning that the students have to engage with each part of the course and the clear expectations for each grade tier can allow students to prioritize their efforts if, for instance, they have met the requirements for their target grade in my class and need to focus instead on passing a different one.

Moreover, by modifying the expectations up or down for either the overall grades or for individual assignments I can adjust what my expectations are for the students. Thus, when our tech issues struck, I could easily fulfill every learning objectives and still lower the expectations for several graded categories in my classes, much to the relief of my students.

I particularly found specifications grading effective for relatively small, repeated assignments like journals where partial credit is particularly arbitrary and missing the rubric on one or two assignments both teaches an important lesson about following the assignment guide and has a relatively minimal overall effect on the final grade. Whether or not I continue with Specifications Grading as an overarching grading scheme, I will definitely carry these aspects forward into what comes next.

The Bad

More of my students this semester than in the fall term seemed to embrace the spirit of the specs grading and understood how the grade tiers worked, but this still left me with some students who struggled to see the connection between the work that they were completing the grade tiers in the syllabus. A couple of these were unique cases with a confluence of circumstances, but others were more persistent and connected to another issue that frustrated me last semester.

One of the keys to Specifications Grading is transparency. Every assignment guide came with a detailed rubric that spelled out exactly how to earn credit for that assignment. These rubrics were prescriptive in that they articulated the formal characteristics that I was grading on, but they were deliberately open-ended so that the students could work within the guardrails to express themselves. For instance, the journal assignment specified a length, a mandate to include a date, title, and word count, and a set of prompts like “what was the most interesting thing you learned from class this week” or “how would something you learned this week change a paper you wrote earlier in the semester.” For responses to a class movie, the rubric might be that you need to answer each question with at least 2 complete sentences appropriate for the movie.

However, I often got the sense that the students weren’t checking their work against the rubric before submitting it. In the small repeated assignments one or two times being told that an assignment wasn’t accepted put the students back on the right track, but then in some of these cases the students would trip up in exactly the same way on the next assignment.

Even more worrying was that this also happened on bigger assignments like papers where students turned in sometimes two or more drafts that seemed to rely on little more than hope that it fulfilled the rubric, even after having the students use this exact rubric for the purposes of peer review. I allow students to revise their papers both as a matter of praxis for teaching writing and because not doing so would be too draconian a policy for a specs system (see below), but nevertheless getting rounds of papers that simply ignored the guidelines, and, in at least one case, introduced new ways that the paper missed the rubric on revision, made me ask in frustration why I provide the rubrics in the first place.

But for all of these frustrations, these are not the reasons I’m considering whether to keep a specifications model or adopt some sort of hybrid system.

The Ugly

Two semesters into using Specifications Grading, my biggest question is whether it is a good match for writing-enhanced classes.

I really like the rubric I designed for grading essays in this system. Unlike most specs rubrics that use a proficient/not-proficient binary, my rubric has two “pass” tiers, one for basic proficiency and another for advanced. The advanced tier I calibrated at roughly a low-A. Earning a C in this course required revising one of three papers to the advanced tier and just the first tier for the other two, a B required revising two, and the A required all three.

Despite the promises of specs grading, I have not found that this system saves me any time at all, especially when grading papers on the learning management system, which I do as a matter of equity (e.g. costs of printing), scheduling (e.g. not having things due at class time), and convenience (e.g. I can toggle between versions). Simply put, I found that a lot of students would not be able to write well enough to fulfill the advanced tier of the rubric on one paper, let alone three. Even when they looked at the scored rubric, which was not always the case, I felt like I had to give lots of direct and actionable feedback in the paper itself, in the rubric comments, and in the summary comments on the paper. Otherwise, I feared, the students might not be able to make the connections between whatever they wrote and the rubric scores.

Let me be clear here: the system works. As I told my students, my goal at this point in their college career is to help build good writing skills and habits so so that every student knows that they can revise a (relatively short) paper to a high quality before they get to the two research-centric classes that they take in their junior and senior year. I am also comfortable with the rubric calibration because each semester I had a few students who fulfilled the rubric with no or minimal revisions to their paper, and nearly every student improved dramatically from the start of the semester to the end.

But there were also some days when I felt like I was dragging two classes worth of students (46, at final count) toward writing proficiency, on top of being responsible for the course content, two sections of tag-along non-WE sections of these courses (6 students), and the first year seminar. It was a lot. Having two sections of this process of course magnified all of the issues, but it also left me wondering whether continuing down this path toward completely spec-ified writing-enhanced courses is sustainable. I don’t relish the prospect of going back to traditional points-based grading either, which makes me wonder if I can imagine some sort of hybrid grading scheme that does what I want it to do.

The Last White Man

Anders waited for an undoing, an undoing that did not come, and the hours passed, and he realized that he had been robbed, that he was the victim of a crime, the horror of which only grew, a crime that had taken everything from him

Anders lives in a rural town where he works as a trainer and passes time smoking weed and having sex with Oona, a friend from high school who moved home after college to help care for her mother. This town, which read to me like Britain but could easily be in the US (Hamid also uses ambiguity as a universalizing device this way in Exit West), is populated overwhelmingly by white people. That is, until Anders wakes up one morning to discover that he is no longer white, patient zero for a plague that sweeps through society.

The Last White Man belongs to a genre of novels that range from Albert Camus’s The Plague to Jose Saramago’s Blindness where either a real or metaphorical plague sweeps through a community, thus allowing the author to explore the consequences of this change. (Other reviews mention Kafka’s Metamorphosis, but, despite the echoes in Anders’ experience, I found the broader social transition strain that analogy.) Hamid’s version, the plague is a metaphor for immigration that compresses the abstract fears about replacement into a matter of weeks, thus heightening the social tensions.

Other than revealing who, in fact, becomes the titular last white man, there is little plot to explain in this slim novel. The Anders-Oona relationship, for instance, starts as little more than a liaison of convenience and only develops somewhat beyond that. The relationship Anders has with his father and Oona’s with her mother are similarly lightly-handled. Rather, this is a novel about questions the answers to which have far-reaching consequences.

What impressed me about The Last White Man was how Hamid develops two themes related to identity.

First, Hamid uses Anders’ abrupt transition to explore the experience of being a person of color. He is the same person he was on the previous day, but he also no longer recognizes himself. Moreover, his day-to-day experience of the world has become filled with menace from the people around him. Anders changes how he interprets he the actions of the people who look at him and how he thinks about the people who had been living as people of color in town before the transition, not-so-subtly gesturing at the assumptions and social cues that the majority population so frequently takes for granted.

Anders was not sure where his sense of threat was coming from, but it was there, it was strong, and once it was obvious to him that he was a stranger to those he could call by name, he did not try to look in their faces, to let his gaze linger in ways that could be misconstrued.

Second, Hamid explores how racism can work on a social level. The spreading coloration is not the result of foreign influx or migration and yet the perceived threat fueled in part by media claiming that the plague is the result of a conspiracy seeking to undermine the natural order leads to violence that ranges from suicide to the formation of lynch mobs. And yet, Hamid also leaves the reader with a note of optimism. Most people start out unsettled by the changes, but, just as Anders and Oona are able to rediscover one another, so too is the community at large able to rediscover the ties that make them into a functioning society.

I liked The Last White Man a lot, and both the themes and the lyrical prose are in keeping with the other novels of his that I have read. The simplicity of the plot and character relationships allowed the heavier social themes to shine through in a very breezy read. The simplicity placed this book somewhat behind Exit West in my estimation, but the balance put it just ahead of The Reluctant Fundamentalist. In sum, The Last White Man is well-worth reading and leaves me interested in reading Hamid’s other two novels.


I just finished reading Angela Saini’s Superior and am now reading both Umberto Eco’s Baudolino and Dara Horn’s People Love Dead Jews.

Weekly Varia no. 27, 05/20/23

One of the most common escapist discussions I remember in graduate school is the idea of opening some sort of commune library-brewery-cafe-bakery-farm that would offer us an idyllic existence and also cater to people who needed the isolation to write their dissertations. I was always the bread guy in these schemes, for obvious reasons. At this point I probably have close to a dozen recipes that are both replicable and high enough quality that I would be willing to serve them at a bakery and, yet, I have never seriously entertained the idea of opening a business.

In part, I have had the distinct pleasure of managing every aspect of a restaurant from the HR side of the business to service to dealing with health inspectors. I can do the job, but it isn’t one I’m eager to return to. But this experience also taught me one of the key differences between food preparation at home and in a restaurant. In the former, where you are cooking for yourself and people you know well, there is considerable room for creativity. Maybe your ingredients are a little bit different today than what you had last week or you cooked an item a little differently or at a different temp. Or with different proportions. Most people aren’t going to care if two version of the same dish come out a bit different.

By contrast, when you’re cooking in a restaurant or bakery you need to provide your customers with the same experience each time they come in. Not only does this communicate to customers that your product is reliable, but it also helps keep your costs and prep process predictable. If, for instance, you advertise that you sell large pizzas at 14″ diameter, but those pizzas range in diameter from 12.5″ to 15,” you’re inviting both chaos and angry customers who rightfully believe that you have ripped them off. No two pizzas have to be identical, but two pizzas of the same size should, in theory, have the same amount of dough, sauce, cheese, and amount of pepperoni.

These were the things on my mind last night while I was preparing bread for a little celebration my wife and I are throwing today. She made cupcakes and cookies, while I made three freestanding loaves of bread, two sandwich loaves, flatbreads, and eighteen pizza crusts for baking in my fancy new Ooni pizza oven (see the picture below), all using sourdough. For a few hours I had my three largest bowls filled with large lumps of proofing dough before breaking the balls into the constituent pieces and refilling the largest with the last breads. Batch baking requires a little more arm-strength if, like me, you are without an electric mixer, but it is also the only way to produce recipes at any scale—not unlike a time last year when I helped Truman’s Jewish Student Union bake something like seventy loaves of challah in a little over four hours.

I rarely batch-bake because I want to make sure that the two of us don’t let the bread go to waste. More usually, I have to scale recipes down rather than up. And yet, the principle is the same, just requiring bigger spoons.

Anyway, that’s my weekend: making sure that I have enough carbs to feed a platoon or two.

This week’s varia:

  • Pasts Imperfect this week looks at a new fragment of On Nature by the fifth century BCE philosopher Empedocles, along with the usual roundup.
  • Modern Medieval remind us that cats (or the the execution of cats) did not cause the Black Death. Their post promotes another blog, by Eleanor Janega, that goes through the evidence and is definitely worth reading.
  • Archeologists working underwater in the Bay of Naples in Italy discovered a Nabataean altar from Pozzuoli. It is easy to say that the Roman Mediterranean was an interconnected web that facilitated population movement, but it is always nice to see examples like this of people from Southwest Asia setting up shop in Italy.
  • Nadira Goffe spoke to Denis McCoskey in Slate about the new Netflix Cleopatra docudrama and the case for making her Black. McCoskey talks about this Cleopatra as a translation in which it makes sense to present her as the Romans might, distinct from “Europeans.” In this sense I agree with McCoskey and while I haven’t (yet) watched the show, my philosophical objections are more to the assumptions baked into a docudrama than to a particular representation. From the comments of other ancient historians, the issues seem to run deeper than the casting choice.
  • In Salon, a rundown on authoritarianism in Florida and the path to fighting back. All signs point to DeSantis running for President. For all of the doom and gloom, there are signs of resistance, such as in the Jacksonville mayoral race that was won in an upset by the Democrat Donna Deegan this week. Until now, Jacksonville was the largest city in the country with a Republican mayor.
  • Influencer Caryn Marjorie is teaming with a new start-up that will allow her followers to interact with an AI program that replicates “her voice, mannerisms, and personality”—for the price of $1 per minute, which she estimates will earn $5 million per month. For some reason I found this to be the most depressing AI story I’ve read yet. Perhaps because its explicit goal is to have people trade the promise of “genuine” human interaction for the comfort of generative text.
  • Between an economy particularly dependent on tourism, policies to keep the state quaint, and an influx of out of state money, Vermont is suffering from an acute lack of affordable housing. The town of Woodstock is offering incentives to landlords in surrounding towns in return for price controls for Woodstock workers. This program, like tiny homes for Arizona teachers, is pitched as a benefit for workers, but it is also a gross manifestation of the current state of capitalism that makes workers all the more dependent on companies for basic necessities and widens the gap between the haves and the have-nots.
  • Diane Feinstein returned to congress last week. When reporters asked her about the return, she insisted that she had been in Washington voting on issues and refused to take additional questions. (Slate and LA Times) Politics in this country is far beyond parody at this point.
  • Elie Mystal writes about the Jeremy Neely killing, explaining why the charges being brought by the DA are probably the right ones and deconstructing the arguments of the people defending the killer. He also points to the disconcerting reality that an increasing number of people seem to actively want to live in a world filled with vigilante justice because they assume that people who think like them will be the only ones perpetrating it.
  • Elon Musk took to social media to declare that George Soros, whose name is the classic example of anti-semitic dogwhistles, “hates humanity” and that he wants to “erode the very fabric of civilization,” probably because Soros’ hedge fund sold its shares of Tesla. Along the way he compared Soros to Magneto, a character whose backstory makes him a Holocaust survivor. Meanwhile, an Israeli minister tasked with redefining anti-semitism as attacks on Israel fighting anti-semitism has defended Musk on the grounds that Soros funds organizations “hostile” to Israel.
  • Videos of Jack Texeira, the air national guard member behind the Discord leaks, along with chat logs and interviews with people who knew him reveal someone with fantasies of committing violence against liberals, Jews, lgbtq+, and Black people. He apparently fantasized about inciting a race war.
  • Back in December, a psychiatric ward for children staged “an active shooter drill” using a worker who did not feel that he could say no to his supervisor as “an assailant.” Only they didn’t tell either staff or the police, leading to officers from four departments showing up to the scene and holding one of the men at gunpoint for half an hour. Woodruff, that worker, is now suing the state. This story is almost unbelievable, and the people who set the drill are lucky that
  • War on the Rocks has an interesting analysis about the limits of a French strategic doctrine that relies on small numbers of high-quality forces over quantity, particularly with a focus on how French contributions to Ukraine’s war effort critically diminished its own equipment stockpiles. This particularly piqued my interest because of an IR simulation I participated in as an undergrad, playing the French Minister of the Armed Forces.
  • Orcas have sunk three boats off the coast of Europe and seem to be teaching others to imitate the behavior. The orca war is upon us.

Album of the Week: Jeremy Fisher, The Lemon Squeeze (2014)

Currently Reading: Umberto Eco, Baudolino

Tender is the Flesh

The cover of Agustina Bazterrica's Tender is the Flesh, depicting the bottom half of a woman's face and the top half of a bull.

“After all, since the world began, we’ve been eating each other. If not symbolically, then we’ve been literally gorging on each other. The Transition has enabled us to be less hypocritical.”

Ordinarily I start novel reviews with a plot synopsis before offering any editorial comments or analysis. This is the way of reviews. Sometimes a non-fiction book warrants an anecdote of some sort that leads into the review, but discussion of novels generally requires insight on the plot to be meaningful.

I will get to the plot of Agustina Bazterrica’s Tender is the Flesh in a moment, but, before I get there, I want to make something very clear: this might be the most disturbing book I have ever read.

Tender is the Flesh follows Marcos, a man who has spent his entire career in the meat industry in an unnamed South American country that I suspect is meant to resemble Bazterrica’s home country of Argentina.

A virus deadly to humans swept through the animal kingdom at some point in the recent past. Animals could carry the disease without ill-effect but any human who ate contaminated meat or was scratched by an infected animal would die. Overnight, governments worldwide exterminated all animals that had a chance of interacting with humans. Humanity went vegan by necessity, much to the dissatisfaction of most people. Meat consumption, after all, is more a political statement than a biological necessity.

(Bazterrica includes a correct detail that humans often turn to meat for Vitamin B12, but it is a poor explanation for what happens in the novel given both that there are synthetic means of producing the nutrient and that people do this because humans can’t produce it.)

It was the first public scandal of its kind and instilled the idea in society that in the end, meat is meat, it doesn’t matter where it’s from.

Old taboos start to decay in this new zoologically-deficient world. People consumed other people in secret at first. Immigrants, migrants, and other marginalized people began to disappear, prompting cynical whispers that the virus was nothing more than a conspiracy to curb overpopulation. But norms change and, soon, human meat is an accepted part of people’s diet, with distinctions made between human cattle without names and citizens, the latter of whom can only be eaten in special circumstances. By the time that we meet Marcos, his career has changed from operating his family’s cattle slaughterhouse to being a manager at a slaughterhouse for the euphemistically-named “special meat” industry.

While he removes his soaked shirt, he tries to clear the persistent idea that this is what they are: humans bred as animals for consumption. He goes to the refrigerator and pours himself cold water. He drinks it slowly. His brain warns him that there are words that cover up the world. There are words that are convenient, hygienic. Legal.

There are two ways to talk about Tender is the Flesh: the setting and the plot. Both are disturbing.

The greatest part of the horror in Tender is the Flesh builds out of the setting. I found that the inciting virus required a suspension of disbelief since its mechanics seemed rather improbable, but from that one point Bazterrica spins out a richly-imagined dystopia that is altogether too plausible given that its basic realities are transposed directly from the world of industrial meat, just adapted for humans. Thus we are given a tour of the breeding where the First Generation Pure grow up in captivity, their vocal cords removed “because meat doesn’t talk” and where impregnated females are often maimed so that they can’t kill the fetus so that it isn’t born into the hell, and to the processing centers where they are sedated, stunned, and killed.

But if the industrial side of special meat processing serves as the focal point of the novel, Bazterrica also introduces the “normal” sides of special meat consumption through parties held by Marcos’ sister Marisa and the seedier elements of the black market trade in human flesh. In a particularly grotesque examples of the latter, Marcos visits a particularly perverse establishment where, for a surcharge, a client can pay to eat the woman he had sex with and where celebrities can pay off their debts by signing themselves over to be prey in hunts.

The unrelenting bleakness of the setting only serves to underscore the trauma of the plot. Marcos’ wife Cecilia has recently left him, broken by the death of their baby Leo after years of trying to start a family. At the start of the novel, Marcos is simply going through the motions of life and trying to watch after his dying father, but things change when he receives the expensive gift of a First Generation Prime female to raise as domestic head. Marcos himself helped write the strict regulations governing domestic head since the meat industry has to keep a division between full people and meat people for the fiction to continue to exist and the idea of eating one’s own children is too horrific to contemplate. And yet, Marcos decides to first name this FGP Jasmine, then to bring her into the house, and, eventually, has sex with her in a way that suggests that he is trying to create a genuine relationship. When Jasmine becomes pregnant, the question seems to become whether one or both are going to suffer consequences from the regulators who keep trying to pry into what Marcos is hiding.

I will not reveal the final twist, but it was both shocking and perfectly in keeping with this bleak world.

Perhaps the most striking thing about this book is the trauma that pulses through nearly every character. Marcos, for instance, spends most of the novel going through life in almost a fugue state, which, in turn, colors the rest of the story. But this trauma plays out in the person of the nihilistic butcher, the tender-hearted job applicant at the processing plant, and a sister who seems to be disassociating from the reality of what she eats. The only ones who seem unaffected, Bazterrica suggests, are the sociopaths.

But this is a novel pregnant with ideas, such that other social commentaries dance beneath the surface of the trauma. Most obvious is the critique of industrial farming that inflicts so much of the trauma. Unsurprisingly, Bazterrica has talked about how her transition to vegetarianism informs, even while saying that meat informs her identity as a participant in a carnivorous society. Likewise, this commentary is bound up in a larger discussion of capitalistic consumption. Not unlike in our own world, meat in the novel serves is the ultimate marker of social status, whether one has access to it or whether one becomes it. The have nots are consumed first and all human flesh is transactional. Thus the reader is invited to consider where they might exist along this spectrum.


I finished Tender is the Flesh in April, but the end of semester busyness interfered with sitting down to write this. In the weeks since, I reread Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi, which my students loved more than I could have anticipated, and read Robert Graves I, Claudius, Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Children of Time, and Mohsin Hamid’s The Last White Man. I didn’t much care for I, Claudius, but I anticipate writing about the latter two books. I am now reading Angela Saini’s Superior: The Return of Race Science and Umberto Eco’s Baudolino.

Weekly Varia no. 26, 05/13/23

One of my favorite things about my job is getting to spend so much time working with young people. My students are adults exploring the world on their own for the first time, and I get to help them grow in the process. Nor do I feel like a significantly different person than I was in college. More mature in important ways and with more aches and pains, but mostly a deeper, better realized version of the person I was at that time.

Experience of age is a funny thing. Like many professors, I have experience the shock of realizing that the cultural reference I’m making or a piece of media I’m showing dates to before my students were born, and thus now exists in their awareness of the world as a meme, if it does at all. Nor do I understand many of their pop-culture references, but, then, that was true when I was their age, too. If anything, I do slightly better these days.

Except with TikTok. I don’t understand what happens on TikTok. But I digress.

Teaching in higher education follows predictable patterns. The fall semester begins a process of renewal. The incoming first years arrive first, filled with youthful fear and excitement for this big adventure. Then they are joined by the returning students (hopefully) refreshed and bringing with them a bevy of new experiences after a summer away. Then the semester begins.

This time of year is the reverse. Most students have been racing to finish exams so that they can head home, leave for a study abroad program, or get started on a summer job. But the minority of students who have been around the longest are now the ones filled with fear and excitement as they prepare to leave this space they have made their home for the last few years, on to new and uncertain worlds. Some rush to finish, while others linger, not ready for this time to end. A celebration of their accomplishments and a period tinged with sadness.

What you don’t expect working around so many young people is for the experience to be colored by death, but that is just what happened this week.

On Thursday morning I received a message that the roommate of two of my students had died.

Truman is a small community, and these two students had been brought to the Jewish Student Union’s Passover Seder this year, so I immediately feared the worst. A few hours later those fears were confirmed Jehoshua Casey, the president of JSU had been killed in a car accident the night before while driving through a small town in Southern Iowa.

Josh was 20 years old, and preparing to study abroad in Indonesia.

Grief rippled through the Truman community. The Jewish Student Union organized a candlelight vigil that took place in a steady drizzle on Thursday night. By my estimate 150 people showed up, mostly students and some faculty, and more would have been there had they not already left campus for the term. People with no experience reading Hebrew stumbled through transliterated Hebrew prayers, followed by a more confident recitation of the English translation. Then people took turns offering remembrances of an impulsive and gregarious young man who was always looking to get people involved. An outgoing person who wanted nothing more than to be involved in whatever was happening. Someone who was president of Jewish Student Union, ran multiple events in track, played on the ultimate team, and was a member of Truman’s ROTC program—on top of being a full-time student. Who invited near-strangers to go on Spring Break trips and who spent the weekend before Finals going on a trip to the Kentucky Derby. I have no idea what he was doing in Iowa, but since there were no finals on Wednesday, I can imagine that he had been on some adventure and was on his way back to campus to finish off the semester.

As I sat there in the rain on Thursday night listening to friends and acquaintances talk about knowing Josh from parties or Jewish Student Union, or ultimate, or just seeing him around campus, I kept thinking about how young he was. How young they are. How fragile life can be. Someone commented that he lived a full life, and I couldn’t help but disagree. Josh filled his time with activity, but his life was cut short before it could blossom into fullness.

May his memory be a blessing for all who knew him.

This week’s varia:

  • In response to the NAEP Civics and US History report card, Matt Tyler reflects on how learning names and dates in history classes can help contextualize the bigger picture. These are not the “fun” parts of a history class, but I agree with the author that these things are necessary to creating meaning and therefore need to be a foundational part of the curriculum, which means that they have to be assessed somehow (I do open-book quizzes that allow retakes juxtaposed with more analytic assignments). However, it is easy to place too much emphasis on these basic facts and rote memorization, especially when trying to redefine what counts as civics.
  • David Perry and Matthew Gabriele at Modern Medieval comment favorably on the AHA’s Guidelines for Broadening the Definition of Historical Scholarship. They bring out a few highlights about how the document states the problem and establishes guidelines.
  • Pamela Paul, a New York Times opinion columnist and former editor of the Book Review, wrote a column decrying how the “liberal” academic apparatus is anti-merit because a prestigious journal refused to publish an “article” titled “In Defense of Merit,” even though that journal has a microscopic acceptance rate and the article did not fit either its remit or format. Tim Burke has a good discussion of the original article, which he refers to as “Baby’s First Attack on Postmodernism” by scientists who have not given the time or intellectual energy to engage with the material they are claiming to critique. But an article with thesis doesn’t have to be good to be picked up as a weapon in the culture war by people whose prior assumptions it confirms.
  • Katherine Sasser, a member of the Columbia (Missouri) School Board and mother of a trans child, announced that she is resigning her position. A bill banning transgender health care for minors (and limiting it for others) has made its way to the governor’s desk for his signature. She says that the state’s LGBTQ+ legislation makes it unsafe for her family to remain in the state. I am of the belief that it is important to stay and fight for a more equitable future since most people are not fortunate enough to be able to move, but it is also hard to blame people who can move from doing so.
  • The academic board of the Elsevier-owned journal Neuroimage has walked out over the “greedy” policies of the publishing company. I’m not getting my hopes up that this heralds a big change since one of these mass resignations happens every few years, but it is a good reminder that companies barricade research behind steep paywalls while the writing, reviews, and editorial work goes largely uncompensated. Like many scholars, I’m always happy to send people offprints for anyone interested in my articles.
  • Jonathan Eig found a complete transcript of Alex Haley’s 1965 interview with Martin Luther King Jr. for Playboy. This is the famous interview in which King laments X’s “fiery demagogic oratory,” but the full transcript reveals that Haley (or his editors) took the lines out of context to make King seem more critical of his Civil Right’s colleague. Eig argues that their goals were much more aligned than often portrayed.
  • Your content moderation, and attempts to “detoxify” ChatGPT is outsourced to poorly-paid workers in Africa. Those workers are currently trying to unionize for pay and working conditions.
  • Kate Wagner (of McMansion Hell) writes in The Baffler about the current state of the McMansion, connecting it to the ethos of endless prosperity and consumption that, among other things, contributes to the environmental crisis.
  • Another day, another mass shooting in the United States, this time in Allen, Texas, where a gunman wearing a patch RWDS (“Right Wing Death Squad”) opened up at an outlet mall. He killed at least eight people. In Texas, the endemic school shootings have the legislature proposing that children as young as third graders receive training in how to use tourniquets and other tools used for battlefield trauma care.
  • Meanwhile, Tommy Tuberville gave comments in which he criticized a move to drive White Nationalists out of the military and said of White Nationalists “I call them Americans.” His clarification was to explain that when he talks about White Nationalists he’s thinking of MAGA-types and the people who stormed the Capitol. Tuberville is also complaining about low recruitment being a threat to military readiness, at the same time as he is holding up promotions over the military continuing to offer abortions and other medical treatments to service members.
  • Living in the United States makes it easy to get caught up in the horror of gun violence, but this car crash in Texas is a sobering reminder that guns are not the only weapon available to people in this country.
  • George Santos has been arraigned, pleading not guilty to fraud and money laundering charges. He has also confessed and agreed to pay restitution for charges in Brazil.
  • NPR has a piece on how Recep Tayyip Erdogan consolidated power in Turkey over the last twenty years, and how some of the same factors that brought him to power now put him at risk of losing this weekend’s election.

Album of the Week: Barefoot Truth, “Threads” (2010)

Currently Reading: Mohsin Hamid, The Last White Man; Martin Hallmannsecker, Roman Ionia: Constructions of Cultural Identity in Western Asia Minor

Weekly Varia no. 25, 05/06/23

I never know quite what to do as a professor in the last week of the semester. When I was a teaching assistant in survey courses I dedicated this week to exam preparation, but my deep skepticism of that mode of assessment means that I almost requires students to sit final exams. I have students write papers instead, and, increasingly, I have moved key pieces of the assessment earlier in the semester so that the students are able to revise their work before the end of term. This change gives me more flexibility about what we cover later in the semester, but I go back and forth on what we should focus on given that the “new” content is not going to be assessed on a test. But neither do I want to leave a semester unfinished, so I have recently been doing two things to round out the semester.

First, I use the last couple of weeks of class to complete whatever thematic arcs we have followed from the start of the semester. I started thinking about my courses in these terms four or five years ago when I realized that doing so helped both me and my students approach the material as a discrete unit that layers and builds depth as the semester goes on. The last couple of weeks let us tie these themes together.

Second, I lean into reflection. For instance, in two of my classes this semester I showed the students their opening day Jamboard where I asked them to reflect on what they knew coming into the course. My Persian history class got a kick out of seeing how little they knew, while the Roman history course talked about how they had a lot of key terms or ideas, but as buzzwords absent context. In both classes, we then talked about what they learned and reinforced the themes for the semester. Predictably, my Persian history class ended up in a passionate discussion about the challenges of writing ancient history.

But when I step out of the classroom for the last time for the semester, whether tinged with sadness or relief that a particular class has concluded, I also feel like I’m stepping into an unsettling limbo. As much as I am often ready for a break at the end of a long semester, my work is not over. I will be meeting with students throughout the finals week and screening films for a couple of classes, and the “final” grading push has only just begun.

By next week, though, I might be ready to start looking ahead to the summer.

This week’s varia:

  • Paul Thomas has a good reflection on one of the core challenges of a good writing-intensive class: changing student perceptions about whose responsibility learning actually is. In his estimation, as it is mine, these challenges are systemic to American education, and COVID policies only exacerbated the issues where students often don’t avail themselves of the resources at their disposal and limit their revisions to the things specifically pointed out in the comments, even when those comments are representative of other issues. My hope is that because I’m doing this from my seat in a history department and frequently have the students in our major more than once I can help them break these habits even if it takes more than one iteration.
  • NAEP Civics and US History scores for eighth graders dropped last week, showing a modest drop from 2018 and 2014, but only back to the baseline for earlier years. There is some performative rending of clothes and tearing of hair about these scores (including on my campus), but these scores are deeply misleading. These are not good tests, to start with, and I could easily see how questions about “the rule of law” on a civics test might be shaped by the discourse filled with mass shootings, police violence, and attempts to overthrow the government. But even more damning is the data about social studies instruction that, even disregarding the frequently-true stereotype of the coach-teacher, the suggests that social studies education has lagged behind other disciplines in terms of time and resources. Unfortunately, this new data is being used to manufacture a crisis that can only have negative outcomes.
  • Stephen Chappell writes about his approach to digitally restoring the polychrome painting on the Apollo Belvedere for a French exhibition.
  • Pasts Imperfect highlights a history of philosophy podcast this week.
  • Modern Medieval features an article about a Carolingian coin bearing the name Fastrada, one of the wives of Charlemagne.
  • Baker Maurizio Leo, the author of The Perfect Loaf, asked ChatGPT to provide him a sourdough bread recipe. His assessment is that the AI produced a reasonable generic loaf, albeit with a particularly high baking temperature, but that the recipe lacked creativity. AI is a powerful tool and the pace of its development is truly impressive, but I also believe that even some of the “basic” tasks people are racing to offload onto the AI require more care, attention, and creativity to do well. In many ways, bread baking is a metaphor for life and “Great sourdough bread isn’t simply a pattern that can be detected and replicated; it requires a human touch to guide it in the right direction.”
  • AI machine learning translation tools that swapped singular for plural pronouns (and other little errors) put Afghan asylum claims at risk. I find these tools incredibly useful, but this sort of error underscores my primary concern with AI, namely that putting all your trust in the tools without any way to check or verify the accuracy will cause innumerable problems that will only be caught when it is too late if they’re caught at all.
  • The “Godfather” of AI left his job at Google and raised warnings about the future of the technology. His concerns are about ethics and bad actors, while mine lie more in the likelihood that most people are going to assume that AI can do more than it can in a way that is going to cause enormous disruption while eroding the imperative to learn the underlying skills and putting significantly more noise and misinformation out into the world.
  • Missouri’s Senate passed a proposal to raise the threshold for statewide constitutional amendments to 57% of voters (from the 50%+1 that in recent years rejected right to work, legalized marijuana, and approved medicare expansion, among others) or a simple majority in five out of eight heavily gerrymandered districts. The combination seems designed to curtail the power of voters unless they’re likely to vote the way that the Republicans want. His concerns seem rooted in
  • New reporting at ProPublica has revealed still more financial ties between Clarence Thomas and Harlan Crow, including more than $6,000 a month(!) in boarding school tuition for a grandnephew over whom Thomas had legal custody. Thomas did not report this financial relationship. At the same time, the Washington Post has a report about money that Leonard Leo funneled to Ginni Thomas the same year that the court was hearing Shelby County v. Holder, all the while directing her name be left off the receipts. There is not much more to say about this deep level of corruption in the Supreme Court, but it seems bad when ProPublica has a section dedicated to this series of stories. Sheldon Whitehouse is spearheading efforts to create accountability, so, naturally, Senators like Josh Hawley claim they are designed to intimidate justices.
  • Herschel Walker’s campaign appears to have violated campaign finance laws by acquiring hundreds of thousands of dollars for his private business.
  • This week in “there are too many guns,” a baseball player for Texas A&M-Texarkana was hit in the chest by a stray bullet while he was in a game.
  • Greg Abbott described five victims of a shooting last week as “illegal immigrants” alongside a reward for the shooter in a bit of casual cruelty. At least one of the victims appears to have been a legal resident, as though the residency status matters.
  • A passenger on a New York City subway killed Jeremy Neely after putting him in a choke hold. I almost didn’t include this story in this list I had a hard time bringing myself to read about it and, especially, the discourse around whether killing someone was somehow justified. These posts are a curated rundown of things I read about during the week, usually that I have some sort editorial comment about. When one topic seems to have captured a particular zeitgeist I have nothing of particular substance to add, except to note that the grotesque discourse about under what circumstances it is acceptable to murder people in public absolutely terrifies me.
  • The story that made me think about the gun violence epidemic in the United States was when I heard the BBC World Service do a feature on two mass shootings in Serbia this week, with the rarity of the violence making international news. The level of gun violence in the United States is not normal.
  • Belgian customs officials zealously enforced the complaint from the Comité Champagne by destroying a shipment of Miller High Life after the trade group objected to the slogan “the champagne of beers” on the grounds that it infringed on the designated place of origin label.
  • Astronomers observed a gas giant being eaten by a star for the first time, doing it in one big gulp. Pretty cool.
  • Tucker Carlson has thoughts about how white men fight (McSweeney’s).
  • McSweeney’s has an imagined short monologue: “If elected president, I promise to slaughter Mickey Mouse.”

Album of the week: Justin Townes Earl, The Saint of Lost Causes (2019)

Currently Reading: Adrian Tchaikovsky, Children of Time; Martin Hallmannsecker, Roman Ionia: Constructions of Cultural Identity in Western Asia Minor

The World of Jason Fitger

Julie Schumacher has published two novels about academic life, Dear Committee Members (2014) and The Shakespeare Requirement (2018), with a third in the series, The English Experience due out in August. The first two novels are campus farces featuring the eccentric professor of creative writing Jason Fitger who received his job and tenure at the small midwestern Payne College on the strength of literary novels years ago, though his most recent novel The Transfer of Affection both flopped and precipitated his divorce. Now he remains embedded in Payne, laboring away in a deeply dysfunctional department.

And to begin this recommendation on the proper footing: no, I will not fill out the inane computerized form that is intended to precede or supplant this letter; ranking a student according to his or her placement among the “top 10 percent,” “top 2 percent,” or the “top 0.000001 percent” is pointless and absurd. No faculty member will rank any student, no matter how severely lacking in ability or reason, below “top 10 percent.” This would be tantamount to describing the candidate in question as a witless beast. A human being and his or her caliber, intellect, character, and promise are not reducible to a check mark in a box. Faced with a reductionist formula such as yours, I despair for the future, consoling myself with the thought that I and others of my generation, with its archaic modes of discourse, won’t live to see the barren cyberworld the authors of your recommendation form are determined to create.

Dear Committee Members

Dear Committee Members unfolds over a single academic year, as told through the recommendation letters of one Jason Fitger. Professor Fitger writes a lot of recommendation letters, and takes great pride in the genre. Perhaps too much pride. Each of the letters he writes does indeed recommend the candidate for positions that range from jobs to graduate schools to administrative positions on campus. But these letters also contain flourishes that let the recipient know exactly what he, Jason Fitger M.F.A., thinks of them, their position, and the whole academic apparatus. Invariably, this commentary also means that the letters often wander into an ongoing one-sided dialogue between Fitger and his silent interlocutors such as his current department chair (a Sociologist imposed on the department), his ex-girlfriend Carole Samarkind (the associate director of Student Services at Payne), his ex-wife Janet Matthias, who he met at a prestigious writing Seminar and now is an administrator in the law school at Payne, and Eleanor Acton, their former classmate and now director of the Seminar from whom he is attempting to secure a position for his mentee Darren Browles.

Fitgers commentary traces the contours of an academic year, and the absurdity of the whole system—including letters of recommendation—is deeply familiar to anyone who has worked in it. Indeed, these are the letters of recommendation I wish I could write. Further, Schumacher offers cutting commentary about the state of the contemporary university.

Iris Temple has applied to your MFA program in fiction and has asked me to support, via this LOR, her application. I find this difficult to do, not because Ms. Temple is unqualified (she is a gifted and disciplined writer and has published several stories in appropriately obscure venues), but because your program at Torreforde State offers its graduate writers no funding or aid of any kind—an unconscionable act of piracy and a grotesque, systemic abuse of vulnerable students, to whom you extend the false hope that writing a $50,000 check to your institution will be the first step toward artistic success.

Dear Committee Members

But Schumacher cuts the comedy of Jason Fitger the difficult and absurd colleague always kvetching about something or another by making it clear that is nevertheless deeply cares about his students and will go to great lengths to help them succeed. This character trait likewise adds emotional weight to a dark plot line about the declining emotional state of Darren Browles reflected through Fitger’s futile efforts to save him.

The Shakespeare Requirement picks up the following academic year, with Jason Fitger, the creative writing professor with a lowly MFA, now at the helm of Payne University’s English Department, his colleagues grudgingly voting for him at the end of Dear Committee Members.

This novel has functionally three core plot threads.

The first follows Dennis Cassovan, aging professor of Shakespeare who loathes that while he was on sabbatical his colleagues burdened the department with Fitger, a mediocre novelist and non-scholar. What’s more, administration is requiring a “vision statement” for the department and there is a chance that that vision might exclude the Bard himself. Cassovan objects, strenuously, and the cause is taken up by his long-suffering research assistant Lincoln, who makes Shakespeare a cause célèbre on campus—much to his annoyance—after the poster on Cassovan’s door is vandalized.

Here was the future, Cassovan thought. Out with considered argument and nuance; in with publicity students, competitive righteousness, and the thrill of rage.

The second follows Angela Vackrey, a timid but promising student from a small, conservative town whose work attracts the attention of both Fitger and Cassovan. However, both men are too preoccupied with administrative and faculty issues to offer her much mentorship, and Angela finds herself adrift without any close friends at college. In part, this is how she finds herself pregnant after a single sexual experience with a boy from her Bible study. Surely this means that she must marry him?

Finally, there is Fitger himself. I am very fortunate to be in a department with an exceptionally competent chair—so much so that last year the department joked that our reappointment vote was to prevent her from stepping down. Jason Fitger is the opposite of that: a roiling mess of disorganization and impolitic observations with barely any sense of the levers of power within an academic institution. To make matters worse, his ex-wife Janet Matthias is dating the Dean who signs off on the department paperwork and Roland Gladwell, the chair of the well-resourced Economics department, is staging a hostile takeover of their shared building. Oh, and campus newspaper has run a series of articles condemning Fitger’s “Literature of the Apocalypse” course as traumatic.

The students, who have requested anonymity, claim that the reading list for the fall class—on the “Literature of the Apocalypse”—was detrimental to their mental health and “psychologically hostile.” One of the students has reported consulted a family lawyer.

Sophomore Yvetta Curtin, who was not enrolled in the class but had seen a copy of the syllabus, suggested that the selection of novels was “irresponsible” and could be dangerous for students with emotional issues or PTSD.

Fitger’s only hope may lay in the person of the department secretary, Fran, who miraculously keeps the department moving forward despite its lack of a budget. The problem is that in order to have a budget, the department must have a vision statement and, thanks to Roland’s meddling, the department must approve the statement unanimously. But Fitger will get the statement approved over Cassovan’s dead body unless it includes requires that all English majors take a Shakespeare class.

The Shakespeare Requirement retains a similar tone to the Dear Committee Members, but dispatching with the epistolary format allows Schumacher to offer wider perspective on the campus culture of Payne. Schumacher treats Payne as an every-college. The humanities are underfunded, numerous students apathetic or overwhelmed, and administrators out of touch with the practice of teaching. The hubbub about students not even in the class being outraged by Fitger’s literature of the apocalypse class might as well be a campus culture wars headline about Schumacher’s alma mater Oberlin. While some of these caricatures wore a little thin at times, I found that the wider perspective made the campus satire hit somewhat closer to home for better and for worse. Where Fitger’s (failed) romantic partnerships and his (doomed) attempt to save his mentee form the core plots of Dear Committee Members, The Shakespeare Requirement follows a protracted war over the future of the school. Victory might hinge on the silliest of factors in the novel, but the fight itself is all-too real.

Education was expensive and inefficient; teaching students to think and write clearly was the same. But Hoffman, a business school graduate with the singe-cell mind of a banker, had never taught anyone anything. Her ultimate plan would be to organize the campus into two simple units: “Numbers” and “Words.”

The Shakespeare Requirement

I am a big fan of both of these novels. They are fun, light reads filled with sweeping caricatures and clever turns of phrase, but with some of the darker—and altogether human—crises of higher education hovering just beneath the surface. The comic sub-genre of campus novel is to the best of my knowledge not extensive, and the genre writ-large tends to focus on character or coming of age stories. This makes it almost inevitable that Schumacher’s books would be compared to Kingsley Amis’ Lucky Jim, which I particularly disliked. Schumacher populates her books with quirky and sometimes bad or unlikable characters, she avoids the meanness and myopia that I found in Lucky Jim. Schumacher makes it clear that however difficult and disoriented Fitger becomes, he legitimately trying and some of his most dramatic failures come from the best intentions—something that seems likely to have been drawn from experience in academia.


This semester got away from me and I’m not sure which of my recent reads will receive profiles here. I am currently reading Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Children of Time.