The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break – Steven Sherrill

Note: this book did double duty, since I applied a tried and true technique of assigning for class a book I have been meaning to read for years. It was on my list first, though, so I’m going to count it toward my non-academic reading anyway. The opinions expressed in this post are my own, but developed through class discussion with my students.

The architecture of the Minotaur’s heart is ancient. Rough hewn and many chambered, his heart is a plodding laborious thing, built for churning through the millennia. But the blood it pumps–the blood it has pumped for five thousand years, the blood it will pump for the rest of his life–is nearly human blood. It carries with it, through his monster’s veins, the weighty, necessary, terrible stuff of human existence: fear, wonder, hope, wickedness, love. But in the Minotaur’s world it is far easier to kill and devour seven virgins year after year, their rattling bones rising at his feet like a sea of cracked ice, than to accept tenderness and return it.

Some men are born to lead, to envision, to shape and mold the politics and opinions, the attitudes, the mores, the outcomes of their times, from individual to individual or on a world scale. Others take it upon themselves to intervene rather than to forge, to serve, to help, to intuitively recognize problems or the potential for problems and give whatever is necessary to prevent or at least rectify them. Still others merely exist. Trembling at the thought of the horrible responsibilities that making a decision entails, and willing to let their lives –and, by association, the lives of others—unfold or collapse according to dumb luck, they seek out obscurity. They choose or arrive at insignificance and soon enough become willing to suffer the consequences. There was a time when the Minotaur and his ilk were important, creating and destroying worlds and the lives of mortals at every turn. No more. Now, most of the time, it is all the Minotaur can do to meet the day-to-day responsibilities of his own small world. Some days he can passively witness the things that go on around him. Other days he can’t stomach any of it.

What if Theseus lied? What if, instead of killing the dread Minotaur in the Labyrinth and returning a hero, Theseus was struck dumb with fear and perhaps defeated and in the darkness struck a deal with the Minotaur in return for his life? What if the immortal Minotaur has been existing on the margins of human societies for the last five thousand years?

This is the basic premise of Steven Sherrill’s The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break. After millenia of wandering, M. finds himself in rural North Carolina, where he lives in a trailer park and works in the kitchen of Grub’s Rib where Grub, the proprietor, pays him in cash so that he doesn’t have to deal with a bank. Despite issues with his horns in the cramped kitchen, M. likes the work; cooking, like sewing, and working on the mechanical engines such as are found in cars, makes sense to him, consisting of simple, repeatable patterns that tend not persist through the years. Certainly, these are easier to assay than the intricacies of conversation that is dependent on ever-changing contours of society, even before considering the limitation of a bull’s tongue in forming human words.

The kitchen staff accept M. as a member of the team. Cecie even flirts with him. The wait staff is generally not hostile to M., but neither are they willing to include him in their social interactions outside of the restaurant. Mike and Shane are exceptional in their mockery, something that M. chalks up to the malice of young men that lashes out at whatever is different and incomprehensible to them.

But then there is Kelly, a new waitress who suffers from epileptic fits. Her difference draws M.’s attention and forces him to face questions about what he wants in life. Their budding romance gives M. hope that, at least for a while, he will not be alone, but also exposes prejudices hidden beneath a facade of civility.

This novel about a classical monster is at its core a story about interpersonal relationships, romantic and otherwise. M. is moderate and careful, aware of his bovine instincts, but communicates through lows and single words. His rich and sensitive thoughts are known only to the reader. Most people do a double-take upon seeing M., but generally mask their reactions with civility, while kids are both less judgmental and less circumspect. M.’s difference (along with the difference of the other mythological creatures who are living on the margins of American society) is simultaneously all-encompassing and totally irrelevant.

Sherrill makes M. occupy the intersection two two masculine stereotypes in modern America. On the one hand, he is the African American man, gawked at and assumed to possess overwhelming, subhuman sexual appetites that threaten to be unleashed, particularly against white women. On the other hand, he is the hispanic illegal immigrant, handy and silent, working on the margins of society. In neither is he totally accepted by the white establishment except by the handful of benevolent patrons and a smattering of outcasts who sympathize with his otherness.

But lest one get the impression that The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break is a serious interrogation of issues of race, I should say that it alternates between an emotionally powerful look at loneliness, isolation, acceptance, and the search for connection in modern America and an absurdist comedy. Much of the humor comes from putting M. in absurd situations unique to him such as a brief stint as a rib-cutter operating a mobile cart, but others, such as a first date playing miniature golf at a course next to a drive-in XXX theater, are simply absurd situations.

I really liked The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break, both as a novel and because it gave my students ample material to talk about in the context of monsters and monstrosity in modern America. The writing struck me as overly dramatic at points, self-conscious in a performative way, but neither should that small critique detract from an excellent novel, which works both in the sense of inventive reception of classical myth and in that it offers a thoughtful look at issues that have only grown more important in the years since its original publication.

There is a sequel, The Minotaur Takes His Time, published in 2016 that I have not read yet. As a final note, this is the first book I’ve read from cover to cover on Kindle. I didn’t love the experience, but did like the highlighting and annotating features that allowed me to skip directly to the spot, particularly for the purposes of teaching.


Life has been busy of late, what with the fast-approaching end of the semester and some academic conferences, as well as some unexpected and time consuming developments. Nevertheless, I am now reading Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash, which interprets US history through the lens of class, with a particular focus on the down and outs among people who are theoretically still represented by those in power. I am also working on several posts that will probably go up in the near future.

The Collapsing Empire – John Scalzi

The Interdependency has existed for a millennium, ruled from Hub by the House of Wu, whose monopoly on military equipment and strategic location enables it to control access and charge demand tariffs on commerce. Hub is so named because it is the nexus of “the flow,” a poorly understood phenomenon that allows (in relative terms) rapid transportation between the far-flung systems that humans occupied after leaving earth. The stability of the flow has allowed the the development of the Intedependency, an artificial social system of family-based monopolistic guilds, the church, and parliament, all headed by the Emperox. By design, no part of this system can exist on its own, as the new Emperox Cardenia learns soon after her accession, but that does not stop the ambitions of the Interdependency power players.

At the heart of events is the Nohamapetan family, which has aspirations to a marriage with the royal family and designs on End, the most isolated planet occupied by humans and one consistently beset by rebellions. The question is why.

Caught up in the conspiracy are two additional families, Claremont and Lagos. The latter is logical enough in that Lagos is a major trading family and rival of the Nohamapetans, and so a natural target. Claremont, on the other hand, is a minor imperial representative on End, sent away from the center of politics decade ago for reasons that were never made public. Jamies Claremont is not, however, a mere bean counter, but a flow physicist working on a secret project: his models predict that the flow, the very foundation of the Interdependency, is collapsing, or at least access to it is. With his model finally complete, he decides to dispatch his son Marce on what may be the last ship out, represented by Kiva Lagos, to deliver the report in person.

The Collapsing Empire consists of two interlocking threads. The first is the story of the political intrigues of the Nohamapetan clan; the second and more significant one is the race against the impending disaster that will end human life as it is currently known and could end human life altogether. The second thread gives the book a sense of urgency, but remains ultimately unresolved.

The Collapsing Empire is in some ways vintage Scalzi. It is irreverent, with plenty of sex and cursing, thoughtful social and scientific constructions and quickly moving plots. In other ways, it represents the next step in his evolution as a writer. First, its four groups of characters mean that variously intersect mean that the book is the most complex narratives of his that I have yet read. Second, while Scalzi’s characters have always been fun with their snappy dialogue, the characters in The Collapsing Empire struck me as more mature. Not in the vocabulary, but more well-rounded on the one hand, and more varied in their motivations and personalities. (By his own admission, these were some of his favorite characters, too.) While Scalzi also hints at deep insights about humanity in how the Interdependency will be forced to adapt, those issues are put on hold while people resist the inevitable changes to come.

Scalzi’s appeal, and one that he fulfills in The Collapsing Empire, is a witty, fast-paced science fiction adventure. The optimistic potential of human society, tempered as it is by ambition and greed, and political resonances are just a bonus.


I recently finished reading a collection of Camus’ essays. I’m not going to do a full write-up, but I like his lyricism and his aspirations to investigate the meaning of life. He is well-worth reading. Now I’m reading Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash, which demonstrates how poverty has been articulated as a foundational sin in US history.

American War – Omar El Akkad

“So? Wouldn’t you, if you had no stake in it?”
“Nobody has no stake it in,” said Sarat.

They didn’t understand, they just didn’t understand. You fight the war with guns, you fight the peace with stories.

The Second American Civil War broke out in the year 2074, months after the Daniel Ki, president of United States and driving force behind the fossil fuel ban of 2069, was assassinated by the secessionist suicide bomber Julia Templestowe in Jackson, Mississippi. Rebellion in South Carolina came to an abrupt end after the introduction of a contaminant that forced the entire state to be quarantined by both sides, but Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi formally declared themselves the Free Southern States with its capital in Atlanta on October 1 2074, surrounded by a ring of purple states and blockaded by the Blue.

The southern cause is barely held together by regional identity, foreign aid, and a defiant loyalty to the now-banned fossil fuels. Northern “Birds” (drones) rain fire from the sky, displacing southerners to refugee camps such as Patience, while the south is reduced to striking back with suicide attacks, after the conclusion of the bloody battles in the oil fields of Texas (now a Mexican protectorate). That is, until the reunification ceremony after the war in which a suicide attack unleashes a deadly plague that kills millions of people across the country.

American War tells the story of the second American Civil War through the experiences of the Chestnut family, interspersed with reports, articles, and government documents.

Sarat Chestnut is about five when the war breaks out, living near the broad Mississippi river in southern Louisiana with her parents, brother Simon, and twin sister Dana. She loves her home, but her life changes one day when her father goes to a government office seeking a work permit to move the family further north. He never returns, killed in a suicide attack, and when it looks like the war is going to become active by the family home, Sarat’s mother accepts the offer of the Free Southern States to relocate her family to the Patience Refugee Camp in Mississippi.

Sarat is radicalized at Camp Patience by a recruiter named Albert Gaines, and her righteous rage comes fully into bloom when northern troops appear in the camp and massacre many of its residents for harboring southern fighters. As survivors of the massacre, Sarat, her twin sister, and brother (who miraculously survived being shot) are given a house in Georgia where she lives until rounded up by a Blue raid and imprisoned in Sugarloaf detention facility in the Florida Sea for the duration of the war.

American War is an allegory for our time. The future conjured by American War is evident from the opening pages when a map indicates that rising sea levels have erased Florida and sheared off much of the east coast, leading to the new US Capital in Columbus, Ohio. Much of the southwest, including Florida has been ceded as a protectorate to Mexico and, of course, there is the secessionist territory. And yet, this is all setting.

Omar El Akkad’s strongest point is setting a familiar Middle Eastern story of circling drones, refugee camps, suicide attacks, and radicalization in America. There is no reason why Sarat ought to become a fanatic for the southern cause, and yet she does. Thus, we see, this is not something unique to Muslims, but consequences of the circumstances that are exacerbated my US military action and an inability to, as they say, win hearts and minds. To drive home this point, we are introduced to “Joe” (Yousef), a friend of Albert Gaines and minister in the ascendant Bouazizi Empire that has been providing most of the humanitarian aid publicly and weapons privately to the Free South. He explains their motivations to Sarat:

“It doesn’t really matter to you, does it,” she asked, “who wins this war?”

“No. It does not.”

“Then why? Why be a part of it?”

“I came from a new place, Sarat.” Yousef said. “My people have created an empire. It is young now, but we intend it to be the most powerful empire in the world. For that to happen, other empires must fail. I think by now you understand that, if it were the other way around—if the south was on the verge of winning—perhaps I would be having this conversation in Pittsburgh or Columbus. I don’t want to lie to you, Sarat: this is a matter of self-interest, nothing more.”

Sarat smiled at the thought. “You couldn’t just let us kill ourselves in peace, could you?”

“Come now,” said Yousef. “Everyone fights an American war.”

For as much as I loved American War, I had one major issue with its insight into America: race. Sarat and her siblings are half-Mexican and half-African American operating in a south that in my mind was still dominated by a white aristocracy, and yet there is more clucking over the possibility of the latent Catholicism from their father than there is about race. In fact, there was just one scene, where a Mormon man balks at entering a predominantly African American neighborhood on the grounds that he would not be welcome where the issue of race came to the forefront. By and large sexuality and ethnicity are the two categories that, in as far as they work in the story, there is broad acceptance. The former I believe because it is performed in private, the latter is not. The lack of discussion in this regard might be explained by the story through Sarat’s perspective wherein she becomes a celebrated agent for those in the know, but this was not always the case. The cotton fields of the south might be gone, but it took a suspension of disbelief to accept that the scars of the US history with race were so easily healed through collective intransigence over fossil fuels.

Despite the singular ray of hope for a post-racial America in this grim dystopian future, American War is a brilliant debut novel that ought to be read and internalized by everyone making US foreign policy decisions.


I couldn’t decide which novel to read next, so I ended up starting a collection of essays by Albert Camus, including The Myth of Sisyphus instead.

The Wisdom of the Greek City States

In the Federalist Papers, our Founding Fathers consulted the wisdom of the Ancient Greek city-states when writing our own Constitution. They learned a lot. They knew what they were doing.

This comes from the transcript of President Trump’s comments during a commemoration of Greek Independence day at at the White House last Thursday (3/22). After only a short delay ancient historians jumped on the comments to point out the deeply troubling, if still persistent notion that Greece is the origin of Western Civilization. It is easy to chalk this up to this specific audience since Ancient Greece would be the appropriate topic for this setting, but doing so forgives a vision of Greece that not only diminishes the contributions of Asia and Africa, but also skips directly from the “wisdom of the ancients” to the Greek War of Independence in the 19th century when they could again be cast as the heroic resisters of oriental despotism.

Greece is only the origin of Western Civilization when it is convenient.

This is not meant as an attack on President Trump specifically, but a general observation about the ways in which political addresses reinforce pernicious historical myths, regardless of whether the line is deliberate or a careless addition. The nature of “Western Civilization” and clash of civilizations are among the worst offenders of this rhetoric, but they are hardly alone.

The line that jumped out to me most, however, was the one quoted above, that the founding fathers looked to the wisdom of Ancient Greece in the Federalist Papers, leading to a scattered and ad hoc Twitter thread, collected and expanded upon here.

Alexander Hamilton, in Federalist 9:

It is impossible to read the history of the petty republics of Greece and Italy without feeling sensations of horror and disgust at the distractions with which they were continually agitated, and at the rapid succession of revolutions by which they were kept in a state of perpetual vibration between the extremes of tyranny and anarchy

Hamilton, in Federalist 6:

The celebrated Pericles, in compliance with the resentment of a prostitute, at the expense of much of the blood and treasure of his countrymen, attacked, vanquished, and destroyed the city of the SAMNIANS. The same man, stimulated by private pique against the MEGARENSIANS, another nation of Greece, or to avoid a prosecution with which he was threatened as an accomplice of a supposed theft of the statuary Phidias, or to get rid of the accusations prepared to be brought against him for dissipating the funds of the state in the purchase of popularity, or from a combination of all these causes, was the primitive author of that famous and fatal war, distinguished in the Grecian annals by the name of the PELOPONNESIAN war; which, after various vicissitudes, intermissions, and renewals, terminated in the ruin of the Athenian commonwealth…

…Sparta, Athens, Rome, and Carthage were all republics; two of them, Athens and Carthage, of the commercial kind. Yet were they as often engaged in wars, offensive and defensive, as the neighboring monarchies of the same times. Sparta was little better than a wellregulated camp; and Rome was never sated of carnage and conquest.

Hamilton and James Madison are more charitable to Greece in Federalist 18, where they look at the Delphic Amphictyony as a parallel to the Confederation of American States. The Amphictyony, they say, preserved the independence of the Greek states while offering them a means to provide common defense.

Very different, nevertheless, was the experiment from the theory. The powers, like those of the present Congress, were administered by deputies appointed wholly by the cities in their political capacities; and exercised over them in the same capacities. Hence the weakness, the disorders, and finally the destruction of the confederacy. The more powerful members, instead of being kept in awe and subordination, tyrannized successively over all the rest. Athens, as we learn from Demosthenes, was the arbiter of Greece seventy-three years. The Lacedaemonians next governed it twenty-nine years; at a subsequent period, after the battle of Leuctra, the Thebans had their turn of domination.

It happened but too often, according to Plutarch, that the deputies of the strongest cities awed and corrupted those of the weaker; and that judgment went in favor of the most powerful party.

Even in the midst of defensive and dangerous wars with Persia and Macedon, the members never acted in concert, and were, more or fewer of them, eternally the dupes or the hirelings of the common enemy. The intervals of foreign war were filled up by domestic vicissitudes convulsions, and carnage.

After the conclusion of the war with Xerxes, it appears that the Lacedaemonians required that a number of the cities should be turned out of the confederacy for the unfaithful part they had acted. The Athenians, finding that the Lacedaemonians would lose fewer partisans by such a measure than themselves, and would become masters of the public deliberations, vigorously opposed and defeated the attempt. This piece of history proves at once the inefficiency of the union, the ambition and jealousy of its most powerful members, and the dependent and degraded condition of the rest. The smaller members, though entitled by the theory of their system to revolve in equal pride and majesty around the common center, had become, in fact, satellites of the orbs of primary magnitude.

Thus, they conclude: “Had Greece, says a judicious observer on her fate, been united by a stricter confederation, and persevered in her union, she would never have worn the chains of Macedon; and might have proved a barrier to the vast projects of Rome.”

A cursory glance at the Federalist papers shows an engagement with Greece, but only as a flashing warning sign for what not to do. So much for the wisdom of the Greek city states.

Hate in a Digital World

Despite how exhausting the 2016 election cycle was in this regard, I continue to be fascinated by the effect of social media on interpersonal relations, something I wrote about a little bit in 2012 when I deleted my Facebook account, in 2014 about the intimidation of professional Twitter, with respect to activism in 2015.

I stand by most of what I wrote before, about the ways in which social media is performative (there is an entire genre of Instagram posts comparing posed and “natural” pictures), is intimidating even when interacting with well-meaning enthusiasts, and isolating. I would revise my assessment of its role on friendship, something I was reminded of this week in light of a thread on Twitter. The general point, since this is not my main focus here, is that when there is a reciprocal interest, social media and other forms of digital communication are an immense boon to friendship. The catch is that reciprocity is foundational, so while it has allowed me to maintain several friendships with people who I have only seen in person once or twice in a decade, many others have withered as one or both sides in the relationship have lapsed. This is not explicitly the fault of social media—people have busy lives and many other responsibilities—but I think Facebook and other social media sites that give the appearance of intimacy make it easier for people to not put in the work to maintain relationships.

Like a lot of people, I have been impressed with the high school students from Florida and elsewhere in the country organizing marches and keeping up the pressure on issues such as gun control. Their ability to sustain pressure online is the one thing that gives me hope that this time, in the aftermath of the Parkland shooting might result in change. Not immediately, and probably not enough, but something.

On the other side of the equation is this:

As the Twitter user mentions in subsequent tweets, the origin of this photoshopped image could well be a Russian troll farm, but it still has its intended effect. This and the issue of privacy, brought again into public discourse by the revelations about Cambridge Analytica, are the legacies of the first two decades of social networking.

The features of the internet that were meant to bring about an enlightened, educated populace and connect people have done that. There is more information on many more topics on Wikipedia than there ever were in the old, lacunate collection of hardbound Encyclopedia Britannica’s I pored through as a child. Sure, it might not have the same specific figures for the size of the East German army as in EB, but in terms of breadth, depth, and (if you know how to look) granularity of the information online, even just counting the content that isn’t behind paywalls, is astounding. News travels at an incredible pace, though rumor still travels faster. The diversity of voices and ability to communicate online is remarkable.

And yet, these same features have their perversions. Falsehood, rumor, myth, and propaganda abound, reinforced and socialized in niche communities. The intersection of the intimate and the impersonal are particularly insidious in this respect. Beyond even the fact that it is easy to attack someone anonymously, the tools of the internet make it easier to attack someone for several reasons.

1. It is possible to see someone like David Hogg as a social media avatar rather than as an individual. He is a face to an issue, not a person expressing one. Besides, if everyone is performing to some extent online, then who is to say that school shooting victims aren’t actors?

2. There is the impersonal nature of the internet. Not only is it easier to attack someone who you will never meet, but it is also easier to caricature or otherwise other them.

3. It is easier to engage with a partial or corrupted versions of ideas rather than their entirety. This happens on all sides; I know I have been guilty of falling for fake Twitter accounts or buying a misleading headline of an article that I didn’t read.

4. This is always the case, but the acceptance of a truth is the responsibility of the beholder. Some facts are more verifiable than others, but accepted truth is just that: a social consensus that is usually based on a deference to authority. With an abundance of information and misinformation online, anything and everything might be regarded as “Fake News.”

Here is the thing: none of this is new. Each of these forms of slander and misinformation has been used against people for as long as there has been communication. For instance, portraying your opponent as an “other” (the more grotesque the better) is a common feature of anti-Jewish, Bolshevik, Irish, and German iconography. Partial truths and outlandish fabrications fill the pages of ancient texts. Some of these come from cultural misunderstandings and curiosities, some from deliberate propaganda, and some out of simple malice. These stories have been the justification for slavery and the cause of wars.

What has changed, in my opinion, is how easy the internet has made the transmission of information. In other words, hate in the digital age is not new. It a cancerous mutation of old problem.

Do Your Job – a plea from Demosthenes

Demosthenes is an interesting ancient orator to read. On the one hand, his speeches are good (an understatement; he has been the gold standard for political oratory for thousands of years), but, on the other, he is a bit of a one-trick pony. Demosthenes made his career in Athens opposing the rising power of Philip of Macedon, forcefully and repeatedly denouncing the king and challenging his fellow citizens to do something, anything. These speeches continue for a bit over a decade, and culminate in one final crushing defeat of the combined armies of Athens and Thebes.

Preparing for yesterday’s class, I had an opportunity to reread the first of these injunctions, Demosthenes’ First Philippic of 351 BCE. Some of the speech is given over to explaining why people should listen to him (people ought to pardon his youth because older people aren’t getting the job done, 4.1) and a specific proposal for military defense that gets into the weeds of fourth century Athenian fiscal management, but a large portion is dedicated to haranguing his peers for their complacency. Their inaction, explained as a combination of specific Athenian failings and the fact that democracies are reactive rather than proactive when it comes to fighting wars, has put the state at risk.

Above all, though, Demosthenes blames his peers of putting their own comfort and self-interest above the needs of the state. He does not blame anyone of being in the pay of an enemy agent; those accusations come later. There are issues with how Demosthenes makes his case, but reading the speech in 2018 it is hard not to sympathize with him. He just wants Athenian politicians to do their jobs.

Even if something should happen to that one, you would quickly make a new Philip attending to the matter this way. That man has not grown strong out of his own resources, but our negligence. (4.11)

Should we remain sitting at home, listening while speakers accuse and abuse one another, then we will never accomplish that which needs to be done. (4.44)

It is not necessary to consider what could happen, but to know that our future will be a sorry state unless you attend to affairs by being willing to do what needs to be done. (4.5)

καὶ γὰρ ἂν οὗτός τι πάθῃ, ταχέως ὑμεῖς ἕτερον Φίλιππον ποιἠσετε ἄωπερ οὗτω προσέχητε τοῖς πράγμασι τὸν νοῦν: οὐδὲ γὰρ οὗτος παρὰ τὴν αὑτοῦ ῥώμην τοσοῦτον ἐπηύξηται ὅσον παρὰ τὴν ἡμετέραν ἀμέλειαν. (4.11)

ἂν μέντοι καθώμεθ᾽ οἴκοι, λοιδορουμένων ἀκούοντες καὶ αἰτιωμένων ἀλλήλους τῶν λεγόντων, οὐδέποτ᾽ οὐδὲν ἡμῖν γένηται τῶν δεόντων. (4.44)

οὐ γὰρ ἅττα ποτ᾽ ἔσται δεῖ σκοπεῖν, ἀλλ᾽ ὅτι φαῦλα, ἂν μὴ προσέχητε τὸν νοῦν καὶ τὰ προσήκοντα ποιεῖν ἐθέλητε, εὖ εἰδέναι. (4.50)

Discussion in the College Classroom – Jay Howard

A couple weeks ago I crowd-sourced a reading list on teaching with the aim of getting better at my job. As much as I trust the people who contributed to the list, it wouldn’t be worth much if I didn’t then start reading; I have decided to write up some of my notes and observations, posting them here and on Twitter.

First up is Jay Howard’s Discussion in the College Classroom.

The short recap is that I found this book useful:

Howard starts by making the case for the value of discussion in the classroom, with the caveat that not all conversation is created equally and that the job of the instructor is to lead students past superficial observation toward deeper meaning. His advice is divided between two interconnected categories: best practices for communication in the classroom and structuring courses to encourage and reward active participation.

Both categories are designed to overcome the prevailing social norm in the college classroom, “Civil Attention”—defined as the appearance of attention regardless of how tuned in the student actually is—a norm that is reinforced by over-reliance on lecture and a reluctance to ask direct questions (which Howard notes may be mistaken for hostility by the professor).

In order to change these norms, Howard calls for instructors to start on the first day of class by communicating and expectation of communication and what participation entails. The latter part will vary based on class, but it is important to convey what counts and how to avoid misunderstanding between a professor who wants students to talk all the time and students who believe they “participated” by doing the reading and showing up.

Howard addresses a number of issues, from how to avoid the trap where one or two students take on the responsibility for participation, grading discussion, and how to run an online discussion board, but some general principles stand out:

  • Large class size inhibits conversation, and it is often useful to subdivide a class down to groups of six or eight, even in large lectures, and encouraging students to exchange information and ideas.
  • It is easy to forget that students are not subject matter experts who have been thinking about issues for year. Give students time to formulate answers to difficult questions.
  • Ask good questions. Avoid factual questions or questions with yes or no answers, but ask opinion questions that can be supported through the text
  • Positively reinforce behavior your want to see by acknowledging student contributions, questions, and risks.
  • Give students peer to peer obligations that prepare them to engage in discussion.
  • Engage with students before and/or beyond the classroom, such as requiring a two minute visit to office hours to say hi. This gets the students comfortable with engaging with the instructor.
  • Above all: be aware of what is going on with the class. This includes body language and what the syllabus says, the physical distance between instructor and student, and whether the course structure is facilitating or erecting barriers to student participation.

Howard’s advice is based on a combination of extensive personal experience and research studies on student participation, but he is careful to note that not only will these suggestions not be a one-size-fits-all solution, but also that what works with one set of students won’t necessarily work with a different set of students the next time the same course is offered, let alone with a different instructor. Nor does he dismiss the utility of a content-based lecture format, all the while offering ways to blend the two formats to maximize student engagement.

There are too many specific suggestions even to begin listing them, but they make this book worth reading. There may be a point of diminishing returns in reading books on pedagogy (unless that is your field of study specifically), but Discussion in the College Classroom is a useful place to start.

1493 – Charles Mann

I have a mixed relationship with reading non-fiction, and particularly with reading history books. On the one hand, I enjoy it and there are lots of interesting stories that I want to read about; on the other hand, it is work-adjacent and I have a little voice nagging me that if I have time to read this history, why don’t I have time to read the latest scholarship. This and other issues explain why 1493, a book recommended to me by a friend who teaches high school history, sat on my to-read shelf for so many months. But here in 2018 I am trying to read more non-fiction and I decided that it was work-adjacent enough that I finally picked it up.

Mann’s thesis in 1493 is fairly simple: although it is fashionable to forget, condemn, or otherwise disregard European explorers such as Christopher Columbus (Colón, as Mann calls him), they collectively initiated a process that resulted in the development of the “homogenocene”—a sub-epoch of the holocene that unified the global ecosystem. In other words, we are living in a world that is linked to an unprecedented degree. What makes 1493 worth reading is the evidence he marshals to support this thesis.

1493 starts and ends in Mann’s garden, contemplating the fruits, vegetables, and tubers that found their way from all over the world into this patch of ground. Between weeding his tomatoes, Mann treks all over the world, looking at in turn tobacco, malaria, silk and silver, rice, potatoes, rubber, human trafficking, and all of the other organisms that went along with these goods back and forth across the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Woven in are elements of environmental determinism and the ways people have tried to change their fates, how the global Columbian Exchange resulted in millions of people dying from illness, but saved millions more by introducing crops like the potato that can thrive in otherwise marginal land.

Mann is an engaging writer and while he is more comfortable entertaining speculation where there is at best circumstantial evidence than I like, he builds his argument by bringing academic research to life. This strength comes to light, for instance, when Mann talks immigration to the Americas. There is discussion of the slave trade, but he also discusses the rise and fall of Maroon (fugitive slave and native) communities and the influx of Asian populations in Central and South America. Mann embraces the complexity, explaining in lucid terms the push-pull factors that lay behind the population movements, how the demographic changes led to changes in the economic structures and goods, and, above all, how the cultures constructed their social hierarchies. Memory and its opposite, which are central to cultural memory, serve as a recurrent through-line as the tomato and sweet potato became embedded in cultural self-fashioning and many of the people who introduced these crops were, for better or worse, forgotten.

This is not a deep dive, but that is the tradeoff for its truly global scope. In the end, I appreciated 1493 and can envision using some chapters for a World History course. Mann’s basic thesis about the Columbian Exchange is shown beyond question, and it is hard not to be caught up in Mann’s sense of wonder at the immense changes. There are moments when that enthusiasm seems to walk the line with admiration for the human agents of the changes, irrespective of their outcomes. Of course the irony here is that despite Mann’s stated aim of restoring Columbus to this global narrative, these men were in the long run forgotten by the world they played an incidental role in helping to create.


I am currently reading Omer El Akkad’s debut novel American War, which is a story set during the bleak future of the second American Civil War.

The Rise of Io – Wesley Chu

Twenty five years have passed since the events of the Tao trilogy, but that is only a moment in the centuries-long alien civil war raging on earth between the Prophus (Betrayers) and the Genjix. What has changed is that human beings now know that Quasing exist and live symbiotic relationships with their hosts. The situation remains precarious for the Prophus, particularly with the Genjix moving in on India, one of the few remaining unaligned countries. One of the zones of activity is a curious piece of construction that the Genjix are working hard to hide, a facility in a slum called Crate Town in Gujarat near the border with Pakistan.

Investigation of the facility and personal vengeance lead Io’s host, Emily, to Crate Town where she is killed. Released from the dead body, Io rejects occupying the designated second and instead joins with Ella, a con-artist resident of Crate Town who had leaped to defend Emily. What unfolds is a small story contained to the goings on with this particular facility, but with deadly consequences for everyone involved.

As usual with Chu’s work, The Rise of Io, features intrigue and plenty of martial art’s action, but it was the mix of character conflicts that made it excellent. The surface level conflict is the ongoing investigation and infiltration of the Genjix facility, but it was the additional conflicts that made it special.

First, there is the tension between Ella and Io. Unlike the relationship between Roen and Tao in the original series, Ella is adamantly opposed to Io, considering the Quasing an unwelcome intruder–and the Prophus a possible source of revenue, at best. This is not because Ella is bad. In fact, she is well liked and willing to put herself at risk to do the right thing. Ella is simply unused to partnership since her father left and her mother was killed by the Genjix in the war, and she is therefore slow to trust. Despite the potential advantages of human-Quasing partnerships that have been revealed elsewhere in this series, Ella never comes to trust Io.

Second, on the other side of the equation, is Shura, a Genjix assassin deprived of her family’s inheritance. Shura is ruthless, but entirely at the whims of Genjix hierarchy, and dispatched to India to oversee this vital construction project under the supervision of her mortal enemy Rurik.

Finally, there is the conflict between Io and the rest of the Quasing. In the current conflict, Io is low-ranking, unskilled at manipulating humans, and most notable for catastrophic failures. But that was not always the case. Once, Io ranked among the most influential of all Quasing, and this change has made Io bitter and dissatisfied with the current arrangement. The problem, however, is that Quasing cannot live without humans, leaving Ella in the middle.

The Rise of Io is an excellent self-contained story that begins and ends in media res, more or less. Nothing is really resolved in the book, and while it can be read as a standalone novel, it builds on expectations and assumptions for the world that are created in the Tao trilogy. In sum, I thoroughly enjoyed this book, but the character conflicts, particularly those involving Io, will be more meaningful with that background.


I am now reading Charles Mann’s 1493, a global history of the world created by the Columbian exchange. So far it is an interesting read about the emergence of what he calls the “homogenocene” era of the globalized world.

Pedagogy in the Humanities – a reading list

On the list of things I don’t really have time for, but want to do anyway, is spend more time reading about the mechanics and craft of teaching. I am particularly interested in issues of course development and planning, active learning, student engagement, and assessment. I sent out a tweet for book suggestions and in the first couple hours it was posted more people boosted the signal through retweets than suggested bibliography, though suggestions did begin to trickle in.

It has been about twenty four hours since I sent out that request; here is my reading list so far:

  • Ken Bain, What The Best College Teachers Do (Harvard 2004)
  • Peter Brown at al., Make It Stick (Harvard 2014)
  • James M. Lang, Small Teaching (Jossey-Bass 2016)
  • Marc C. Carnes, Minds on Fire (Harvard 2014)
  • Jay Howard, Discussion in the College Classroom (Jossey-Bass 2015)
  • L. Dee Fink Creating Significant Learning Experiences (Jossey-Bass 2013)
  • Susan Ambrose, How Learning Works (Jossey-Bass 2010)
  • bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress (Routledge 1994)
  • Nancy Sorkin Rabinowitz and Fiona McHardy (edd.), From Abortion to Pederasty (OSU UP 2015)
  • John Gruber-Miller (ed.), When Dead Tongues Speak (Oxford 2006)

Jay Dolmage, Universal Design: Places to Start, Disability Studies Quarterly 35 (2015)

BU Proseminar in Classical Pedagogy, resources curated by Dr. Hannah Čulík-Baird.

This list will be updated. Additional suggestions are welcome in the comments.