Ten Lessons of Phyllo

I decided I wanted spanakopita this week and in the absence of any frozen phyllo, I decided to just make it myself. My go-to cook book The Joy of Cooking refuses to give a recipe, telling you instead to go buy it frozen. This should have been a red flag.

The internet had a few recipe suggestions for this dough: water, oil, flour, salt, and a dash of vinegar, rolled thin. Simple, right? Well, here are the ten lessons I learned:

  1. Roll the dough thinner.
  2. Thinner.
  3. Thinner.
  4. Even thinner.
  5. Keep going.
  6. No, even thinner than that.
  7. Even thinner.
  8. The cornstarch and flour mixture is very important to keep the sheets from sticking together.
  9. In small amounts vinegar strengthens a dough, allowing it to retain shape or, in this case, hold together when stretched so thin.
  10. Homemade phyllo is finicky and tedious in ways that hurt my back and neck to repeatedly roll out the sheets, even to produce sheets as thick and clumsy as mine. But it is also delicious.

What is Making Me Happy: Brandon Sanderson’ Cosmere

Following the model of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour and, to a lesser extent, the Make Me Smart daily podcast, I want to remind myself that there are things that bring me joy. These posts are meant to be quick hits that identify and/or recommend things—usually artistic or cultural, sometimes culinary—that are making me happy in a given week. I am making this quick format a regular Friday/Saturday feature, except that the end of the semester crunch for most of my classes broke this schedule before it even began.

This week: Brandon’s Sanderson’s Cosmere.

Brandon Sanderson’s latest novel drops next week. Rhythm of War is the fourth book in the Stormlight Archive, the cornerstone epic second-world fantasy to his larger authorial project. What makes this project, the Cosmere so impressive is that it consists of multiple different series, each set on a different second-world and with a different feel, but also contributing to a larger story that is just starting to be made clear.

Ordinarily, I vary my reading, rotating between authors and genres, but my ability to focus on books rapidly diminishes through the fall semester, often going into hibernation sometimes in mid-October. Despite my present exhaustion, I have mostly managed to avoid that fate this year by just letting myself get absorbed in the escapism of epic fantasy, starting with many of the Cosmere books that I had not yet read.

There are three things in particular that make me happy about Sanderson’s work.

First, I appreciate the ambitious scope of these novels. I have now read or am reading thirteen novels and novellas in this universe and, while I can pick up on many of the easter eggs between the stories, the larger story is just now starting to take shape. Seriously. Sanderson currently plans 35 novels for this universe. Some of these books don’t work as well for me as others do, whether because the characters don’t land or the world doesn’t quite work, but I love the sheer variety of these books.

Second, in a recent Writing Excuses podcast episode on Fantasy World-building, Patrick Rothfuss expounded on how some fantasy systems tend toward the numinous, perhaps with defined rules, but playing on a sense of wonder wherein ‘magic’ breaks the defined rules of the universe (effectively, a soft magic system). On the other end of the spectrum, he posited, are scientific (hard) systems where characters treat ‘magic’ as the world as it is and thus studying them are little different from any other scientific pursuit. Sanderson’s magic systems are decidedly scientific. Each series explores a different aspect of a common system that becomes increasingly complex as it iterates. Thus, discussion of the Cosmere often comes back to trying to figure out what the characters can do based on an analysis of the known laws of the universe rather than wondering what new abilities a character might manifest.

Third, and perhaps my favorite thing about reading so many of Sanderson’s books, is watching an author mature and develop. Sanderson’s early books are exceedingly competent, which I often chalk up to his formal education in and teaching of English. As much as I love some of the characters in his early novels, I also sometimes found the prose itself to be mechanical, workmanlike. His focus was on the worlds and the plots, which made for deeply satisfying stories that didn’t always have the most polished prose. I have noticed that starting to change in his more recent novels, where he’s started to wed prettier prose to his technical excellence. Sanderson is still stronger at world-building and the technical side of writing, which allows him to publish at a prodigious rate, but raising the level of his prose has made some of the scenes in his recent novels particularly powerful.

Watching this sort of development in the line-to-line excellence of their prose, which I have noted in authors as esteemed as Ernest Hemingway always makes me happy, if for no other reason than it gives me hope for my own writing.

I suspect I’ll keep reading mostly genre fiction for the rest of this year since I’ll likely remain tired and I have on my shelf Alex Harrow’s The Ten Thousand Doors of January, Arkady Martine’s A Memory Called Empire, N.K. Jemisin’s The City We Became, Yoon Ha Lee’s Raven Stratagem, and Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower, but this week what is making me happy is Sanderson’s Cosmere.

AcWriMo 2020

I had a rough go of things last fall, taking on so much work that I was forced to give up my regular writing practice. And yet, reading about my struggles to stay on top of my teaching and job applications all while thinking that it might be my last year in higher education strikes me now as blissfully unaware of what was lurking just around the corner in 2020.

These past nine months have been an emotional rollercoaster that has tested my mental and physical endurance like never before. #AcWriMo also bridges the end of a fifteen week sprint of a semester that has stretched both me and my students to the breaking point.

And yet, I’m still writing. Not as much as I’d like, but more than I have any right to complain about under these conditions.

The reasons I’m writing more are varied, but rather simple. I’ve had some movement on a few projects such that I now have concrete deadlines. I objectively have less teaching this semester (and a smaller paycheck to prove it). The teaching I have is concentrated in the afternoons four days a week, which often leaves me time to write in the morning even when prep bleeds into that time. I’ve been better about jealously guarding my time such that I consciously schedule more breaks and thus have more energy to write. I also find writing meditative such that turning off anything with updates (email, news, social media) for the time I’m writing gives a nice reprieve from the fever pitch of, well, everything.

In this vein, I am setting for myself some AcWriMo goals that both reaffirm and expand on my annual writing goals, if not following the formula of setting specific and measurable projects to produce.

  1. One hour per work-day dedicated to academic writing projects, with workday defined as Monday through Friday. I hope to use this time to write, particularly once the semester ends, but this time can also be used for reading or researching, as Dr. Raul Pacheco-Vega suggested today on Twitter. My writing and research processes are already deeply intertwined, particularly at later stages where I’ll pause the writing to build up a note or clarify a paragraph.
  2. Four posts of substance (TM) for this site, one per week in November. In part this stems from a larger goal of writing here with more regularity, but also just to stretch my writing. I don’t exactly know yet what this goal will result in, but the first two topics I have in mind both develop a point or comment I made on Twitter and are related in some form or another to my various academic interests.

That’s it. Writing is a habit that begets more writing, so I’m keeping my goals modest in the hope that I can blow past the targets.

What’s Making Me Happy: Discovering Classic Country

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

This week: Atlanta Burned Again Last Night

I’ve written here before about my love for country music, and particularly for country that that these days might be termed classic. My personal inflection point was 2003, at which point my listening to mainstream country radio largely fell away though I still tune in sometimes while I’m driving to see if I can catch older songs. One of the local country stations rewards this gamble more often than not, playing a variety of songs that skew older and with multiple shows per week dedicated to classic country. My favorite part of these shows is getting, occasionally, to stumble across a song I’ve not heard before.

Exactly that happened this week. From 1983, I give you “Atlanta Burned Again Last Night,” by Atlanta:

In some ways it is a pretty typical catchy country song waxing lyrical about a romantic engagement now gone. I wouldn’t go quite as far as Wikipedia in describing “a teenaged boy’s sexual initiation by a married woman” as a “common theme in country music,” though there are certainly broad similarities to a song like Garth Brooks’ “That Summer.” However, the lyrics here are both more explicit and more pointed about the impropriety of this particular adultery with both parties seeing other people and him not yet 18:

She was over thirty
He was barely seventeen
She was in her second marriage
He dated a high school queen.

These lyrics alone would be enough to make me happy, but what makes it art is the confluence of this subject with the song’s title making reference to and co-opting Sherman’s destruction of Atlanta in 1864.

Atlanta burned again last night
And all the water in the ocean
couldn’t put out the fire this time
They gave in to sin again, but lord it felt so right
When Atlanta burned again last night

The absurdity of the entire package is why I can’t stop laughing.

Evidence, Please

I have said and written a number of dumb things over the years, but the worst statement of mine to appear in print came after the 2016 primary. I vote early in the morning and, if I remember correctly, voted on my way home from the gym at maybe 7 AM. On the way out, a journalist stopped me to ask for a comment. I growled something about my frustration with the “dangerous rhetoric” on both sides.

This milquetoast comment appeared in the paper the next day.

I stand by the first part of the statement, but regret qualifying it with “both sides.” The tenor of political advertising has reached the point that some of the races in Missouri feature virtually identical attack ads against each candidate, but in the aggregate there is no comparing the political rhetoric being put out by the two major political parties. Both sides use rhetoric; one side is actively undermining the legitimacy of the US government and stoking fear and hatred. And yet, in that moment, I contracted a case of bothsiderism that is rampant in political journalism.

Already as I drove away from the polling location I regretted what I had said. I had been thinking about Trump et al. when I said it and yet I not only softened my specific opinion but also suggested that this was a pervasive problem across the aisle. So why did I equivocate even though I have strong, clear political opinions?

It was early and I was asked for an opinion on the spot, but the explanation goes deeper.

In part, I don’t like painting with too broad a brush. I am not a fan of the Democratic Party as an institution and the nature of regional politics has sometimes resulted in Republican candidates in other parts of the country holding political opinions closer to my own than the Democratic candidates I have on my ballot. Similarly, I am seriously alarmed at the amount and types of money that gets spent in US politics, regardless of party, and am happy to give credit to the handful of Republican office holders more committed to taking the necessary steps during the pandemic than they are to playing partisan politics with it, even if I also think they are elsewhere complicit in enabling an administration run amock.

Just this weekend I read an article about how one of those Republican governors, Mike DeWine, was the target of a conspiracy to effect a citizen’s arrest because he listened to the scientists about public safety measures, making this at least the second plot after the conspiracy against Gretchen Whitmer in Michigan.

Another part, I think, was conditioned behavior. I was talking to a complete stranger who was looking for quotes that he could publish and I didn’t want to give him the sense that I had a bias. Is this not also the opinion I, a normal person, am supposed to have with the political elite—that is, sullen disenchantment with a system that largely doesn’t work for me? Certainly, that is what all of the political advertising around here is telling me.

The third part of this triptych is a learned behavior through years of teaching. It has been a right-wing talking point at least since the 1950s that higher education is filled with liberal professors determined to indoctrinate young people into whatever is the cause of the day. Professors often clap back that they need the students to do the reading before they can make any headway on the indoctrination program.

Jokes aside, a several of things seem to generally hold true:

Teaching is a political act. I make political decisions when determining what content we cover, what order we cover them, and what readings we use in class. In my classes we talk about issues like slavery, colonization, and wealth inequality (to name a few), but I usually moderate my political opinions order to focus on the evidence.

Some of this is practical. I’d rather not end up in a position where students send video of my class to a right-wing Facebook group, particularly while I’m working as a contingent faculty member on semester-by-semester contracts.

But some of this is also philosophical. I see my job as a professor as teaching students how to think historically and critically about the world around them. There are things I will not tolerate in my classroom: ad hominem attacks, for instance, or bigotry of any stripe, but these have nothing to do with whether the opinion being expressed is liberal or conservative (which, note, is not equivalent of Republican or Democratic).

“What is the evidence for this?” is one of the most common comments I make on papers, regardless of whether I agree or disagree with the politics of the opinion being expressed. In discussion when I ask questions, students often act like they’re repeating the rote answer they’re supposed to have learned at some point in their lives or that they’re looking for the answer that will please me and end the debate. Those answers get much more difficult when I follow up their statement with “why do you say that?” or “what evidence leads you to that conclusion?”

As I tell my students who often seem like they’re fishing for the specific answer that will please me, everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but that opinion must be grounded in evidence.

These days this isn’t easy. People are increasingly living in two different media ecosystems, neither of which offers a whole lot in the way of evidence, even if media typically decried as “liberal” does a somewhat better job. When opinion and anecdote substitute for substance, evidence loses out and the result is the sort of gulf in a recent poll between 92% of Democrats believing that African Americans face a lot of discrimination compared to 52% of Republicans who agree with the statement—when asked about whether white people face a lot of discrimination, 13% of Democrats agreed, while 57% of Republicans did. The gulf was similarly striking when asked questions about protests in the abstract versus when the question specifically mentioned African Americans.

Of course, opinion polls are exactly that: opinion. They do not require the respondent to offer evidence or reflect on where that opinion comes from. No one likes to be wrong and having your beliefs challenged is uncomfortable; there is comfort in media that confirms what you think you know about the world. (Un)fortunately, there is a whole smorgasbord of options with authoritative-sounding voices or names that will offer you talking points for whatever political position is! Some of them might even be based on evidence after a sort! Consuming these neatly-packaged bites is easy; learning to verify, confirm, and evaluate them is harder because it requires both effort and time.

Four years after I made my original comment, I remain concerned about tone of political rhetoric, but I now see that tone as inseparable from these other issues. This is a country where one imperfect party seems interest in governing for all Americans while the other seems largely interested in ruling for a few with many of their candidates denying science, trading in conspiracy theories, and interpreting the Constitution to suit their purposes regardless of what it actually says. Evidence exists only insofar as they are advantageous.

I recently characterized this political cycle as insulting to my intelligence exactly because of its aversion to evidence. Take Missouri’s Amendment 3. This measure marginally changes the rules about lobbyists, but is primarily an underhanded attempt to hand districting power back to the party in power and un-do a non-partisan measure that passed with 62% of the vote in 2018. Naturally, the advertising in favor of Amendment 3 is mostly scare-mongering about how the (new) regulations handed power to groups outside Missouri.

This past week I encouraged all of my students to vote. I still don’t see it as my place to preach a particular candidate or platform, but suggested that they look beyond the advertising, consider their own values, and learn about the candidates before deciding who to vote for. The most political statement I made was to suggest that they should be deeply suspicious of anyone who wants to make it harder for them to participate.

Encouraging people to vote is one thing; endorsing particular political platforms is another. Maybe I’m naive, and certainly I have some privileges that other professors don’t have, but I can’t do my job if I directly engage in politics in the classroom. I am just also keenly aware that I don’t want to repeat my mistake of four years ago of being so carefully moderated that I slip into the sort of misleading talking points not supported by the evidence.

Bring Back Dokimasia

I didn’t watch last night’s presidential debate. But while I chose to spare myself the rage, anxiety, and dread of watching live, I was not above rubber-necking the proceedings on Twitter. Even vicariously, the debate was a mess and one would be forgiven for seeing this as the death pangs of a superpower being televised.

Nevertheless, a tweet from from PFTCommenter, made me think once again about the which practices from Ancient Athens might be of value. The tweet made a flippant comment about how the particulars of the debate made a strong case for the Athenian practice of sortition. He describes sortition as drawing a name out of a hat, though, naturally the process was a little more complicated . According the Constitution of the Athenians, the ten tribes of Athens nominated eligible candidates for archon were originally and then the sortition process chose from among those candidates. This is not a bad suggestion, but since final authority at least in theory resting with the Assembly (ἐκκλεσία) rather than with the magistrates so real power lay in the hands of individuals capable of convincing a crowd.

The real virtue of the sortition process is that it does not merely apply to who becomes the chief executive. Instead, almost every magistracy—from the wardens overseeing prisoners, to the clerks, auditors, and chief magistrates—were appointed by lot. Combined with these other mechanisms of government like the courts and the Assembly, sortition was designed to encourage wide widespread participation in democracy.

What sortition gains in civic participation, though, it loses in expertise and this year of all years should teach us the value of that. As a result, my first instinct actually went to a practice of “straightening” (εὐθύνη):

εὐθύνη amounted to an end-of-term accounting for their conduct in office. Any official who handled money was required to submit his accounts for public audit that could lead to criminal charges against him. The United States budget is bit more complicated than Athenian public finance, but the spirit of public accountability is spot on.

Equally useful, therefore, would be the Athenian process dokimasia (δοκιμασία) where appointed and elected officials underwent formal review before taking office. The candidate for office had to answer a series of questions before presenting their references (witnesses) and faced potential charges from the general public before the jury gave a thumbs up or thumbs down. Finally, the official entered office by swearing an oath to uphold the laws and not take presents (bribes) on account of the office.

Some of the questions are not particularly relevant today. Despite the racist allegations made about President Obama’s eligibility, we don’t need to ask who someone’s father is and what deme he belongs to, for instance, and I think we’re okay not asking about their devotion to Zeus or Apollo. But οther questions are still worth asking. According to the Constitution of Athenians, the next set of questions were (55.3):

Whether he treats his parents well, and whether he paid the taxes he owes, and whether he served his military service.

ἔπειτα γονέας εἰ εὖ ποιεῖ , καὶ τὰ τέλη εἰ τελεῖ, καὶ τὰς στρατείας εἰ ἐστράτευται.

What about ostracism, perhaps of a particular individual?

In fifth-century Athens, there was an annual question brought before the Ekklesia, asking whether there should be an ostracism vote. If they answered in the affirmative, then a second vote was set at which time every voter received an ostrakon (a pot sherd) on which they wrote a name. If the votes reached a certain quorum, the leading vote-getter was required to leave Athens for ten years.

Sounds great, right?

In practice, this process was much messier and less suited for today’s situation. For one, recent research into the surviving pottery sherds has revealed numerous votes to ostracize “hunger,” so one might imagine many Americans voting to send away COVID. For another, ostracism fell out of practice in Athens after the vote of 416/15 when two political opponents in an extremely polarized Athens, Nikias and Alkibiades, decided against to minimize the risk of losing a vote by turning their supporters against a third candidate, Hyperbolus. The 2020 election is an extreme example, but this would be the equivalent of Jill Stein “winning” the ostracism vote held in 2016. Some people would have wanted that to happen and others could argue it would be for the best, but neither was she the reason an ostracism was called.

(I jest. Somehow Ted Cruz probably would have gotten ostracized.)

My bigger issue with ostracism is another aspect of the practice. In Athens, ostracism was meant to mitigate the risk of any one politician becoming too powerful. Thus the ten-year exile was designed to remove them from their base of political support but did not strip the person of their property. In a modern globally interconnected world the former is impossible unless they’re somehow banished to a moon of Jupiter while the latter rather misses the point given the reporting about how much money has been leeched from the American taxpayers.

Fantasizing about ostracism is fantasizing for a quick fix, but it is too toothless and fickle an institution to resolve any of the problems facing the United States. The debate stage last night might have had on it a face and a name who has come to embody every one of those issues, but slipping into the wishful thinking of ostracism buys into his cult of personality as though what was on display were not the product of long-developing processes. If we’re going to be learning lessons from the Athenian democracy—and I’m not saying that we should—I think it would be better to look to the mundane procedures of accountability and oversight.

In short, let’s bring back the dokimasia. Who’s with me?

Death’s End

Cixin Liu burst on the the American science fiction radar with his remarkable Three-Body Problem, which imagined an intergalactic conflict between humanity and a a race of people called the Trisolarans, named such for their planet and its three suns. News of this contact kicked off a crisis era in humanity. The Dark Forest continued the conflict between these two systems, establishing the Wallfacer project which aimed to coordinate humanity’s resources to confront the threat, eventually establishing a Dark Forest Hypothesis of intergalactic civilization—that secrecy is the best defense because there is always a more powerful civilization that may well decide to eliminate any potential rival. This hypothesis led to Dark Forest Deterrence, best compared to mutually-assured destruction of the Cold War, and a Swordbearer with the sole authority to send out the intergalactic signal. Such is the circumstance at the start of Death’s End, the brilliant conclusion to this trilogy.

Much like its two predecessors, Death’s End is a self-contained story that spans both space and time. This time, the primary protagonist is Cheng Xin, an aeronautical engineer involved in the Staircase project, a program meant to get a person to Trisolaris. (Because of weight restrictions, they only launch the brain of a terminally-ill classmate of Cheng Xin’s, Yun Tianming). Cheng Xin then goes into hibernation and awakens at the very end of the Deterrence Era, the period during which Luo Ji ensured mutually-assured destruction on the basis of the Dark Forest Hypothesis—that is, that there is a force even more powerful than Trisolaris—in part so that she can be elevated as the new Swordholder.

However, Cheng Xin is not Luo Ji and she is not capable of deterrence, leading to a period of Earth’s subjugation by Trisolaris, except that the Trisolaran ships sent to destroy Gravity and Blue Space, two ships that also possess the capacity to broadcast the location of both systems, are unable to fulfill their missions. An advanced civilization ignites on the of the Trisolaran suns, which prompts humanity to create artificial habitats in the shadow of Jupiter (the so-called Bunker Era). But even this facsimile of life on earth will not last and the solar system is collapsed into the micro-universes where the speed of light is reduced where the seemingly-last humans live out an eternity waiting for the rebirth of the universe.

If all of this seems like a big haul, well, it is.

The Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy is a throwback to an old style of science fiction along the lines of an Asimov or Stapledon. It is a story that takes place on an enormous scale and explores the rise of fall of civilizations. I cannot speak to the “accuracy” of the mathematics or science but thought that the future history of humanity became progressively more compelling as the series developed.

Liu’s fascination with the science and big ideas also has a tendency to simplify humanity into a single society as defined against the alien races. As plausible as this vision of humanity is over the long haul, it also has a way of erasing the complexities of the contemporary society in which these books were written. Human on human violence, for instance, is largely limited to personal political power or how humans ought to interact with alien races. But Liu is the crown jewel of a Chinese-government program to promote science fiction that coincides with a rapidly-developing science sector. At the same time, the Chinese government has been interning Uyghur ethnic minorities in the Northwest, allegedly for reeducation, but by all accounts for the purposes of indoctrination—not to mention reports of torture, imprisonment, family separation, forced birth-control, and abuse.

In the New Yorker profile linked above, Cixin Liu downplayed the influence of the contemporary context on his fiction, but he also trots out familiar apologetics for the camps: a benevolent government saving them from poverty and giving them economic opportunity. Liu is in a difficult position given the nature of the news in China and his relationship to the Chinese establishment, admittedly, but he is also wrong to suggest that he is able to escape this baggage. The result is a dark cloud that looms over this deeply engaging series even as David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, the show-runners behind Game of Thrones, are reportedly beginning production on a Netflix adaptation.

ΔΔΔ

I am well into the crush of the fall semester at this point, which is cutting into both my reading and writing time. I have nevertheless finished I.J. Singer’s The Brother’s Ashkenazi, a yiddish family drama set in Poland, and Dreyer’s English, a romp through the English language as told by Benjamin Dreyer, the copy chief at Random House. I am now reading Drago Jančar’s The Galley Slave.

Say Nothing

In all of the issues around Brexit, one of the most pressing was the border between the Republic of Ireland and the UK country of Northern Ireland. With the UK and Ireland both in the European Union the border between the two countries was soft, but Brexit threatened to harden the border and thereby increase tensions. I am by no means an expert on these issues and am vastly oversimplifying them, but while the Good Friday Agreement largely ended the violence of the Troubles, it is hardly a forgotten issue. It was with this background that I brought into Patrick Radden Keefe’s Say Nothing, which the subtitle describes as A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland.

Say Nothing, which draws its title from imperative motto of Provisional IRA operatives, builds its narrative around perhaps the most famous case of a “disappeared” person in Belfast. One night in December 1972, the 38 year old Jean McConville, widowed mother of ten, was abducted from her home in the low-income housing unit of Divis Flats allegedly for having passed information to the British soldiers. She was never seen alive again.

Over the years, the McConville case garnered international attention as one of the most prominent unsolved murders from this period, but hers was just one of some 17 disappeared persons whose abductions were blamed on units within the Provisional IRA, a Republican militia group.

Radden Keefe spends the first parts of Say Nothing pulling back from the disappearances in order to explore the operations of the “Provos,” introducing readers to operatives such as Dolours and Marian Price, two radical sisters in a group called the Unknowns, and leadership figures in the organization like Brendan Hughes and Gerry Adam. He asks important questions, such as how did the Provos become radicalized such that the violence accelerated with money and weapons from the US, most notably the Armalite—the same company that makes the AR-15—and how the conflict developed when prominent Provos ended up in prisons staging hunger strikes.

One of the core tensions in this portion of Say Nothing is the fundamental differences of interpretation in how the Provos and the British authorities saw the conflict. For the Provos, this was a war and they used this justification as an excuse for when they killed civilians. The British responded with the tactics and techniques learned in suppressing rebellions in their colonies. This meant draconian incarcerations and largely looking the other way at retributive violence committed by loyalist militias. The result was tragedy.

Where roughly the first half of Say Nothing is a harrowing, propulsive narrative of events, filled with the youthful fire of its protagonists, the second half is slower, messier, and perhaps more significant investigation into the memory of the conflict.

This happens in two ways. First, the protagonists age. Gerry Adams gains a measure of respectability as a mainstream politician, which his former comrades-in-arms saw as a betrayal of everything they fought for. The others emerged prematurely aged, broken by their time behind bars, and often struggling with alcohol and drug dependencies. They aren’t remorseful, though some expressed regrets about specific actions, but they appear much more subdued.

The second development in this part of the book is reportage on The Belfast Project, a secret project hosted by Boston College where ex-paramilitary members allowed themselves to be recorded on tape discussing their activities during the Troubles. In other words, after years of silence, they said something.

These tapes were to be kept in the US and embargoed until after the deaths of the participants in order to prevent prosecution for crimes committed and thereby get the participants to speak openly and thereby create an oral history archive. Despite this intent, the project turned out to be a mess. Once the existence of the tapes became known, the Atlantic Ocean (and the poorly-written confidentiality agreement) proved a flimsy shield against legal action.

Radden Keefe makes it clear from the outset that he is not a historian. In this sense, he has written a compelling book in which nobody comes off well. This is a story with only villains and victims. Gerry Adams appears sociopathic, for instance, and the Price sisters unrepentant. The through-line is the McConville murder and how the body came to light in part because of the Belfast Project, is a perfect entryway for an exploration into not only the Troubles, but also just how shallowly the Troubles were buried.

At the same time, his particular source-base and choice of subject sometimes leads this to being a one-sided story focused on the Provos and their quixotic war against the British. The British authorities necessarily appear as the antagonist, but since many of their records remain sealed, that side of the conflict is largely absent. The other missing character in all of this were the Loyalist paramilitaries who Radden Keefe mentions, but rarely explores.

I also might have liked further discussion of the historical development of the Troubles given that this was clearly not an isolated incident. Nevertheless, Say Nothing is worth reading, both because it is a propulsive story and because it is an object lesson in how memory and rhetoric form an explosive mixture that can lead to tragedy, particularly during times of economic crisis and when the authorities are not interested in the even application of the law.

Oh, wait…

ΔΔΔ

With the semester in full swing, my reading time has diminished. Right now, I’m slowly making my way through I.J. Singer’s The Brothers Ashkenazi, a generational family history set in the Polish town of Lodz and originally written in Yiddish.

First Day Fragments: reflections on ZoomU 2.0

The title is a little bit misleading since I actually started teaching on August 12, but my final class started this week, so, in a sense, my semester is now fully underway.

Despite cultural narratives about getting the summers off and short working hours, neither of which are actually true, teaching has a way of taking up every moment that you give to it. I often tell my students that wise teachers don’t give busy-work because that work redoubles back on the teacher when it comes time to grade. Teaching is a time-intensive job.

My experience as an adjunct instructor teaching classes at multiple institutions simultaneously over the past few years has me again reflecting on time. There are obvious constraints here: multiple commutes and teaching above what most universities count as “full” employment without full-time pay, benefits, or the advantage of teaching multiple sections of the same class.

But there are also other considerations. Monitoring three separate email accounts and course management systems takes more time than tracking just one professional email, even if the total volume of emails that need to be actively responded to is only marginally higher.

I have also started to believe that teaching on multiple different academic calendars is a hidden time cost because mismatched breaks erase most of the intended rest and recovery. COVID threw academic calendars even further into flux, and one of my calendars moved up the start date and eliminated all breaks in order to fit the entire semester in before Thanksgiving and minimize the exposure of students leaving campus.

I’m already exhausted.

Reflecting on how the start to the semester has me feeling sped up beyond my comfort level has me thinking back to a lecture Randy Pausch, better known for his “Last Lecture,” gave on time management in which he talked about creating a time budget. Easier said than done, but he was on to something.

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Part of the reason I feel sped up right now is that I did not feel prepared for the semester. In part, I spent the last set of months as a knot of anxiety. After the start of the pandemic, I watched the jobs I had applied for evaporate before my eyes. I spent most of the summer facing unemployment, excited about the possibility of time to write and terrified of what came next, all the while going into hustle mode to see if there were any places I could pick up classes for the fall.

At first the answer was no, but then I got one course, then an offer for another, and then, less than a month before the start of the semester, I was offered three more courses. The final tally is that I’m teaching five courses, three of which are entirely new to me. For two of those three I only collected the books about two weeks before the start of the semester, leaving me in scramble mode to offer my students the best experience I can under the circumstances.

I still don’t know what the future is going to bring. I am still only on one-semester contracts and while I have been fortunate thus far the constant uncertainty and last-minute contracts, to say nothing of the amount of energy that has gone into applying to full-time jobs, limits the attention I can give to the semester currently in progress.

All I know is that I am going to be exceedingly busy at least through Thanksgiving.

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There is something comfortable about being in a classroom in person, but find the emotional drain of teaching to a room full of masks exhausting. Beyond adding one more thing to police in the classroom and general muffling of voices, the masks make it hard to read facial expressions that offer real-time feedback to what is going on in class. Then add in the anxiety of face to face contact, classrooms that give more “six feet” than six feet of distance between attendees, the challenges of facilitating small group discussion at a distance, and the juggling act of teaching to a room full of people and a set of people dropping into the classroom on Zoom. We’re making it work, but it is both less effective and more exhausting than usual.

Online asynchronous classes, by contrast, keep everyone on the same level, but have always had challenges in building a community of learners. Discussion boards can be great, but are only as effective as the participants make them. Certainly, there are things the instructor can do to encourage engagement, but they put a lot on the learner. I remember this being the case too when I did one of the more popular MOOCs a few years ago, Programming for Everybody’s Python course. The professor was an effective communicator and had many office hours and meetups to go along with the various assignments. The course had an incredibly active discussion board and yet I only ever went to it when I needed help with a specific question.

Then there is ZoomU 2.0, the online, synchronous class. This keeps everyone the safest, but exposes the whole class to technological issues and internet inequality. I am teaching an intro survey course in this modality, but the prospect of delivering 80-minute lectures to my computer fills me with dread. My aim is to break up the class into smaller chunks with lectures interspersed with discussions, break out rooms and in-class writing assignments to break up the monotony.

I don’t love any of these modalities, to say the least. Right now my fear is that whatever is gained by the intimacy of online video classes and then some will be given back by making it easier for people to get lost in the wash. I think there is virtue in keeping the classes at least partly synchronous, but prefer shorter and/or more infrequent virtual meetings because the costs of staring at a webcam for hours on end are real.

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The fountain of words bubbling beneath the surface back in May trickled away once I had to go into overdrive to prepare for the semester and I’m currently being reminded of why I had to abandon writing almost altogether last fall. Preparing for class will take up every last minute that you are willing to give to it, so they tell young academics to jealously guard their writing time.

I can find time to write most days. What I lose during the semester is the time to read. Writing is, in a sense, a meditative activity where I can shut down Twitter, email, and other distractions in order to play with words for a while. But those words don’t just magically appear. They develop through reading and research, both of which I find harder to carve time out for during the semester both because it requires a different type of focus and because if I’m reading scholarship, a little voice is whispering to me that I should be reading for class.

I’m still writing, just not as swiftly as I perhaps hoped. I finished a book review over the summer, as well as an article that I’m currently shopping and have begun work on roughly eight other projects of various size and imagined outputs. Focus is not necessarily my strength.

ΔΔΔ

Despite concerns over COVID and everything else that is going on, I must say that playoff basketball in August has been quite the treat to have on while working on classes. I don’t always love watching NBA basketball stylistically, but some of the offense are simply spectacular and the games have been a lot of fun.

And yet, before I finished this post, the NBA postponed games after a wildcat strike by the Milwaukee Bucks after yet another police shooting and subsequent violence against protesters. I love basketball, but my favorite thing about the NBA is the number of prominent socially-conscious people who play and coach in the league. They aren’t perfect, to be sure, but I fully endorse prominent individuals leveraging their positions for good causes. I hope it works.

Radical Hope

“Even in the liberal arts, we defend the value of our disciplines largely by talking about how a liberal arts education imparts the types of skills employers value. You’ll be a capitalist cog, but a thoughtful one! So how can we fault students for seeing higher education in largely instrumental, transactional terms if those are the only terms in which they’ve had it presented to them?”

“My teaching career is littered with episodes of maladroit practice that still cause me to cringe years later; sometimes, self-assessment and self-correction suck. But this kind of reflection shouldn’t be simply an exercise in self-flagellation; we should be generous with ourselves in the same ways we are with students when the occasion calls for it.”

Historian and Twitter personality Kevin Gannon’s Radical Hope is a self-professed teaching manifesto built on his decades of teaching experience. Over ten chapters, Gannon lays out a philosophy of teaching that is built on principles of generosity, compassion, and inclusion.

The proposals in Radical Hope are, in short, pedagogical best practices that are also found in other books of the genre. To my mind, they are radical only in how thoroughly they are woven into the praxis envisioned in this book. For instance, Radical Hope points out how the genre of writing that is the college syllabus generates the lament that students don’t read the syllabus by creating a document that more resembles a legal contract than an invitation to the course. This is not a novel observation among books of this sort, even as new COVID language bloats the syllabus further. Similarly, pedagogy books offer tips for how to get students to engage or to combat distraction. Gannon is no different, though, rather than being proscriptive, he endeavors to diagnose the problem from a place of understanding. For instance:

Our task is to create a learning space that can help compensate for the gaps in student confidence, and encourage at least an attempt at the learning activity.

and:

We’ve always had distracted students, whether that distraction involved staring out the window at the quad on a beautiful spring afternoon or sitting in the lecture hall’s back row and updating their fantasy football lineup. (It’s worth noting that the same holds true for most faculty meetings I’ve attended in my career.) The question we should be asking ourselves is what accounts for these distractions? Is it the mere presence of a laptop?

Radical Hope is not a how-to manual, almost to the point of frustration. Each chapter has numerous examples from Gannon’s own career and concludes with a short “into practice” section, but tends not to foreground a deep bibliography of pedagogical research. And yet, Gannon’s language struck home. My most resolutely distracted student, in a class maybe eight or nine years ago, was a young woman with a ball cap pulled down who sat next to the window and stared out into the quad in every class she came to. She may have been hungover (that class met at 8 AM on Friday), but without a phone or laptop in sight she almost never spoke for an entire semester. I was a particularly inexperienced teacher at the time and while that class met in a room with any number of impediments to teaching well, I would do a lot of things differently now.

In many ways, this is the message of Radical Hope: developing a reflective pedagogical praxis. At several points Gannon states that if it seems overwhelming to incorporate every “best” practice in a given semester, pick one to implement. Then pick another next semester. And overhaul your readings the following semester (easier to do when you’re in a stable position, admittedly).

The Platonic ideal of a perfect course, let alone the perfect teacher, does not exist. None of the participants live in a vacuum, so there will be issues. People (certainly students, but also many professors) are in a state of financial insecurity, will show up to class unprepared, were conditioned to respond in particular ways given their educational backgrounds, have personality issues, or are having their meat-sacks acting up on a given day for any number of reasons. Oh, and there is a global pandemic.

This is where I saw the most radical hope. You can’t be a good teacher without, at some level, asserting your “faith in a better future,” as Gannon puts it. Radical Hope largely avoids wading into debates over lectures or whether a classroom ought to be flipped, all of which have merit but often depend as much on the type of class and the style of a given teacher than in any single method.

There is one primary exception to this rule. Gannon at several points suggests that teachers ought to embrace the idea of modeling behavior for students. This means, for instance, encouraging students to use computers to look up answers to questions rather than leaning on what a recent essay called “cop shit” to police technology. Speaking from experience, it can be terrifying to admit before a class of expectant eyes that you don’t know something and it is tempting to try pulling together an answer out of thin air—or somewhere less savory. It can also be extremely disorienting to be called out for saying something wrong, like when I the time last spring when I was talking to students about flood stories and had a student raise her hand to ask me if I meant Noah, because I kept saying Moses. However, if the goal in teaching is to develop minds and to give students skills, then these “inadequacies” are opportunities to model best practices of your discipline. Using them as chances to assert your authority or prove your intellect make the class about the teacher to the detriment of the students.

There is a lot to like about Radical Hope, but isn’t necessarily the place I would start with on a pedagogy reading list. David Gooblar’s The Missing Course I thought offered more practical advice, for instance. But if you’re looking for reinforcement that a pedagogy based on empathy and compassion for everyone involved is possible, this is a perfect read. Given the current state of the world, I would say that this is a timely message. Just don’t get put off by chapter one, “Classrooms of Death;” the title isn’t meant literally.