Blog

The Game: Weekly Varia 11/26/22

The Game kicks off in Columbus in about an hour. For those who don’t follow college football, The Game is the annual showdown between the University of Michigan Wolverines and the Ohio State Buckeyes. Michigan leads the all-time series 59-51-6, but the rivalry has been lopsided in the other direction for the better part of two decades. Going into The Game last year, Ohio State had only lost twice since 2001 when Jim Tressel took over as coach. Ohio State was rarely ranked outside of the top ten in the sport when the teams met during that period. Michigan put up a fight in a lot of years, but, outside of an excellent Michigan team in 2003 and an anomalous Ohio State year in 2011 between the end of Tressel and the start of Urban Meyer’s tenure, Michigan could not seem to win and often lost in heartbreaking fashion. Last year I left the TV off and played Civilization VI until a friend texted me in the fourth quarter telling me that I probably needed to tune in.

Sports fandom, and sports hatred in particular, are strange, tribal phenomena. I have hated many teams in my life, sometimes as specific iterations of a team and sometimes simply for the laundry. Sometimes I hate how a team or player plays their sport. Other times it is because my team can’t seem to ever win. However, I increasingly find myself without the emotional energy for hatred. I still don’t like teams and root for the teams that I’m a fan of, but full-on hatred both takes more energy and is best curated in groups. When it comes to a game like this one, where my fandom collides with the deep, simmering dislike of the other team, though, all bets are off.

I went back and forth a half dozen times this week on whether to tape The Game or watch it live this year. Ohio State is ranked #2 in college football, while Michigan is #3. Both teams are undefeated and the winner will likely end up with a bid to the college football playoff while the loser will “only” play in the Rose Bowl. The lure of live sports is proving too strong to resist, so I’ll be tuning in while also preparing myself for what I think will be a likely Michigan defeat. Go Blue.

This week’s varia:

  • A new study claims to have authenticated a coin found in 1713 long considered a possible forgery because it names an otherwise unknown Emperor Sponsian (the research is available on PlosOne). The researchers suggest it dates to c.260 CE when Dacia might have been cut off from the rest of the Roman Empire and thus minted coins under the name of a local military commander. There are, of course, skeptics. Numismatists, specialists in ancient coins, are suggesting that this study fails to account for numerous tenets of the discipline in their haste to scientifically authenticate the coin. To my mind, this study is a useful reminder about the fragmentary nature of evidence from the ancient world.
  • Graham Hancock’s show Ancient Apocalypse on Netflix is a “documentary” that offers “evidence” of a an advanced ice-age civilization was wiped out by a flood sometime in the dim past. This is pseudoarchaeology with racist bones (it denies the achievements of indigenous communities), so, of course, it is one of the most popular shows on Netflix. The Guardian calls it “the most dangerous show on Netflix,” while Bill Caraher has a more nuanced piece about the impossibility of debunk ing this sort of conspiracy theory and some suggesting for how to productively counteract their influence.
  • Corey Booker is introducing the Industrial Agriculture Accountability Act (Vox), which proposes to reform how the meat industry handles disaster. The bill includes requiring the industry to pay annual fees that would work as insurance in cases of disaster, mandating disaster preparedness plans, and putting companies on the hook for costs like cleaning up the after disasters and paying workers severance afterward. It also would ban the most inhumane culling methods and close some loopholes in American slaughter rules. I have disagreed with a number of Booker’s positions over the past few years, but his consistency in attempting to change one of the American industries most in need of reform is admirable.
  • Investigators are leveling accusations that some Russian military commanders encouraged their soldiers to commit sexual violence in Ukraine (Reuters). This investigation is part of the broader inquiry into Russian war crimes and, while it is too early to say how widespread the practice was, the implication that this violence was in some instances coordinated makes it all the more harrowing.
  • In the Washington Post’s “Made by History” column, Lauren Lassabe Shepherd explores how Ron DeSantis is the latest in a lineage of conservative political actors to make schools their chosen battleground to instill their vision of “America.” The hook here is that Florida recently became the fifth state to make students recognize a federal holiday that I missed when President Trump established it in 2017: Victims of Communism Memorial Day. Lassabe Shepherd is the author of a forthcoming book, Resistance from the Right: Conservatives and the Campus Wars.
  • John Warner, the author of Why They Can’t Write, remains my favorite commentator about the state of higher education. In his column at Inside Higher Education this week, he writes about why nostalgia is such a dangerous sentiment for colleges.
  • Rebecca Jennings at Vox argues that we should stop taking billionaires at their word when they say that they are “doing good” in the world. This argument is hardly new (cf. Winners Take All) and matches what I already believe, but American society remains easily seduced by a class of people who confidently assert vague platitudes while proudly refusing to engage with history or the humanities. But they’re rich, so they must know what they’re talking about, right?
  • In the realm of the silly, the New York Times Pitchbot is consistently the best satirist on Twitter: “This morning while we were listening to The Daily, my four year-old turned to me gravely and asked “Daddy, why are there no pictures of Naomi Biden’s wedding in the Times?” When I told him “because Vogue got an exclusive”, he started crying.”

Album of the week: Gin Blossoms, New Miserable Experience (Deluxe Edition).

Currently reading: Susanna Carlsson, Hellenistic Democracies; Becky Chambers, A Psalm for the Wild-Built.

The Final Strife

The cover of Saara el-Arifi’s The Final Strife.

The Wardens’ Empire violently enforces its rigid caste structure, drawn along racial lines.

At the top of the hierarchy are red-blooded Embers, the descendants of those who fled an apocalypse they termed The Ending Fire. These are the overseers and the administrators, and the only ones taught to write, which would allow one to perform magic called Bloodwerk. Every ten years the Wardens hold the Aktibar, in which aspirants for leadership in each of the four guilds, Truth, Duty, Strength, and Knowledge, compete in a series of trials. The winner in each set of trials becomes the guild Disciple for ten years before ascending to the position of Warden for the following ten years.

Next are the Dusters, whose blue blood stains the fields when their overseers need to meet production quotas. From the numbers of the Dusters come The Sandstorm, a secretive rebellion who hatched an audacious plan to kidnap Embers from their crib, replacing them with Duster children, and raising the Embers to enter the Aktibar, albeit with a different agenda from most aspirants. It is a closely guarded guarded secret that one of the kidnapped infants was the child of Uka Elsari, the Warden of Strength.

At the bottom of the hierarchy are the Ghostings, a race that serves in menial capacities beneath the notice of the Embers and Dusters except in that they seem to be dying in large numbers from a mysterious illness. And yet, Embers also consider clear-blooded Ghostings the greatest threat to the empire. Embers mutilate Ghosting children, severing their hands and tongues, and forcing them to develop both tools and communication techniques to accommodate their disability. While some Embers maintain that this practice is meant to help Ghostings, its murky origins some four hundred years earlier reflect the existential threat that posed by the knowledge that Ghostings pass down through the generations.

In The Final Strife, Saara el-Arifi sets a simple story within this sophisticated world. The book weaves together three plot threads that all build toward the Aktibar trials.

The first plot follows Sylah, one of the Ember children raised by The Sandstorm. However, some years ago, the Embers attacked the camp where The Sandstorm had been training. Sylah escaped the massacre and made her way to Nar-Ruta where, in the shadow of the Warden’s Keep, she fights in illicit matches organized by the enigmatic master criminal Loot and indulges in the ecstasy of the joba seed. However, this life is disrupted when Jond, one of the other children from The Sandstorm, arrives in Nar-Ruta to compete in the imminent Aktibar. In an attempt to reclaim the life that she lost, Sylah finds herself infiltrating the Warden’s Keep.

The second plot is that of Anoor Elsari. To the public, Anoor is the daughter of the Warden of Strength, but she is also Uka Elsari’s greatest shame and thus receives nothing but contempt behind closed doors. After all, she is actually a Duster. However, Anoor has a decision to make after she subdues a dangerous intruder in her chambers. Either she can turn Sylah over to the authorities or she can make her provide the necessary training to not just enter the Aktibar, but to win it. Either Anoor will win the Aktibar and prove her mother wrong or she will reveal her blue blood and demonstrate Uka Elsari’s dark secret. If only she can solve Sylah’s addiction in time to make the plan work.

Behind these two threads lies Hassa, a Ghosting woman who is helping others escape from their servitude. However, she has also been collecting scraps of incendiary information that threatens to expose the artificiality of the seemingly immutable social order that underpins the Wardens’ Empire.

Parts of The Final Strife struck me as “paint by numbers.” The Aktibar offers a simple progression of obstacles that increase in difficulty, while the joba seeds are the consequence of Sylah’s past that she must overcome. Nor was I particularly surprised by any of the reveals (is Sylah Uka Elsari’s biological daughter? will Anoor win the Aktibar?). And yet, the more I read, the more I found myself taken by this world that is inspired by the African and Arabian traditions. For instance, the main narrative is punctuated by the tales told by griots and fragments from Warden archives and other sources open every chapter, thus giving glimpses into the larger world. Likewise, as is common in a lot of recent speculative fiction, el-Arifi uses this world to comment on contemporary issues from trans-inclusion (Hassa is a trans woman) to disability (Ghostings have developed a unique culture that compensates for their physical limitations) to rigid racial hierarchies (self-explanatory). These elements gave depth to the world in the best way.

Perhaps the best way to describe The Final Strife is as a first book in a trilogy. Even the parts that I found predictable gave the book momentum while also allowing el-Arifi to lay the groundwork a larger story and I am looking forward to learning what sort of revolution she has in store for this world.

ΔΔΔ

This semester got entirely away from me, as sometimes happens. I actually finished The Final Strife back in September and am using my goals for #AcWriMo as an excuse to finally write about it.

Since the last post with a reading roundup, I have read five books.

I finished reading Gideon the Ninth, which I will not be writing a full post about because I found it deeply frustrating. It has a potentially interesting galactic setting, but that setting emerges almost entirely through the representatives of each planet who have arrived at a palatial laboratory in the hopes of ascending to the Emperor’s inner circle only to find that someone is killing them. I also found the plot predictable, at least as much as I could within my limited grasp of the mechanics of the world.

Two nonfiction and two novels make up the remaining four books. I already wrote about Stuart Ellis-Gorman’s The Medieval Crossbow and I have plans to write about Emily Tamkin’s Bad Jews, a topical and timely examination of how Jews fit into the course of American political life. For the novels, I am going to write about R.F. Kuang’s Babel, which is an excellent indictment of orientalism and academic life, but am on the fence about Rachelle Atalla’s The Pharmacist, a dystopian novel set in a bunker where a society has recreated itself under the watchful eye of the political leader who brought them there. This novel was effective in exploring the compromises one can make in the face of bleak options, but it also did not resonate with me as much as other books with a similar message

I am now reading Fonda Lee’s Jade City, which I am enjoying very much.

My Information Age: weekly varia 11/20/22

One of the things that I have been thinking a lot about as Twitter lists toward the waterline is how I receive my information about the world. For better and for worse, tapping into Twitter feels like connecting into a larger hive mind and thus has become my primary source of information about any number of topics. What I see is absolutely filtered through a particular information bubble because I aggressively mute both topics and accounts that I believe are not worth my attention, but the accounts I follow do a much better job of curating information for me than I could ever do for myself. Sometimes this information came because I was able to lurk in conversations I would otherwise never have been in a position to hear, as David Perry recently wrote on CNN. Sometimes it was in long threads by a single author. Frequently, though, Twitter was a platform where people would link to and discuss stories from a whole range of outlets.

I have other sources of information, of course. Several places in my RSS feed bring me a healthy dose of information and commentary, including three (Keith Law, Bill Caraher, and Joy the Baker) that do weekly roundups up things that they read, for instance, and I am in several Discord groups that share links. Nor am I opposed to trekking into the wilds of the internet to hunt down my own stories. What Twitter offered was the convenience of having a diverse selection of information brought into one place. Finding stories of note from a range of outlets represents a significant time commitment that I rarely feel that I have these days, even when those stories are not found behind a paywall (I understand the need for paywalls as a business model, but I can only subscribe to so many things).

The question I have is not whether this is a habit I need to develop, but whether I should commit to doing some sort of weekly roundup of essays and articles that I discover in the process. In some ways this would mark a return to my roots, since, years ago I did regular roundups in this sort. The last of those posts went up nearly a decade ago, with links to five stories about topics that ranged from the diary of Franz Ferdinand to a profile of King Abdullah of Jordan to an Onion story that I found amusing. I stopped writing these posts for a few reasons, including that they didn’t get a lot of traction, which made writing them seem like a futile exercise, and that Twitter had come to fill that role in my media engagement. It doesn’t help, that I tend to skim this sort of post that other blogs put out.

And yet, thinking out loud here, I am warming to the idea of a weekly wrap of some sort with a short reflection, links to stories worth reading from the week and a short-form update on articles and books that I’ve read. Such a post would give me motivation to read more widely to curate my list and provide another low-stakes chance to talk about things that I have been reading even when I won’t be writing a full review. In fact, my primary hesitation is over whether writing this post will be something that gets lost in the wash of the other things I have going on.

But there is only one way to find out. For now I’m going to mimic Bill Caraher in calling these posts “weekly varia” that go up either Saturday or Sunday, but I also expect the format, content, and timing of these posts will evolve as I find my groove.

Without further ado, here are the varia for 11/20/2022.

  • Climate change has been a significant factor behind the malaise I have felt this year and, despite the general advice to PhDs in my position to apply for every opportunity, there are jobs I have opted not to apply to for environmental reasons. Reuters published a lengthy piece (with pictures) about how one of the cradles of civilization, Mesopotamia, is drying up. Climate change in this case is being compounded by water usage upriver.
  • From NPR, the FDA approved a safety study from Upside Foods for no-kill meat—that is, meat grown in vats and a feature of speculative fiction stories like Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake. I am skeptical that this innovation will save humanity, but it is absolutely necessary. This week an Environmental Science professor shared an infographic on Twitter about the distribution of mammalian biomass on earth. Wild animals represent 4%, compared to 34% for humans and 35% for cows.
  • The Guardian has a long read about infrastructure challenges of coastal West Africa, where a booming population is leading to a boom of urbanization. I find it hard to read stories like this and not think about climate change.
  • The New York Times has an article about the minister Rob Schenck, who alleges that the leaked draft of Justice Alito’s decision in the Dobbs decision from earlier this year is not the first time that the outcome of contentious cases were leaked to allow Christian groups to prepare their messaging campaign. He goes further, too, claiming that he had exploited access to influence justices during his time as an anti-abortion activist. The Times says that they found gaps in his story, but also a trail of corroborating evidence. For a branch of government whose authority rests almost entirely on the perceived legitimacy of precedent, the current conservative majority seems hellbent on burning the entire institution to the ground. The only question seems to be how much damage will they do before that process is complete?
  • NPR had a story about how culture war issues are creating a teacher shortage. The article correctly identifies the rise in harassment of teachers and points to the numerous bills that have been introduced to punish them for addressing current issues, but it does not identify any of the other issues behind the teacher shortage (e.g. pay, burnout). I also hate that there is a cursory attempt at making this a “both sides” issue when only one ideological position is misrepresenting what happens in a classroom and introducing bills that criminalize teaching.
  • Jonathan Malesic writes in the Atlantic ($) about how employers moving from “sick” days to “wellness” days is a good thing, but that “mental-health days” are no substitute for changing the structures of work that actually cause burnout. This piece is an addendum to his excellent book that I reviewed earlier this year. I have found mental-health days hard to justify, despite an encouraging email from my employer at the start of the semester. Taking a day simply puts me one day further behind on grading and cancelling class periods creates work of reorganizing schedules and coordinating with the students that takes nearly as much time as the cancellations save. Then again, I have also been dragging myself to the finish line. Suffice to say, I am quite persuaded by Malesic’s arguments.
  • The Dig podcast from Jacobin Magazine has been running a very long listen five-part series on the history of modern Iran with Eskandar Sadeghi and Golnar Nikpour. I am an intermittent listener to this podcast, but this series has been a can’t-miss for me these past few weeks.
  • Another podcast, Rachel Maddow Presents: Ultra has one final episode to go. The series is a dive back into the archival footage of 1940 that explores the plots to overthrow the US government and establish a fascist regime in its place, and how sitting members of congress working with German agents were complicit in these conspiracies. These agents were particularly effective at finding the preexisting fault lines in this country and fanning the flames.
  • The French Olympic Committee has chosen the bonnet rouge for the Olympic mascot in 2024. The brand director offered some platitudes about the power of sport to change the world before saying “The mascot must embody the French spirit, which is something very fine to grasp. It’s an ideal, a kind of conviction that carries the values of our country, and which has been built up over time, over history.” Which political cartoonist will be first with a smiling Phryges operating a guillotine? Then again, Gritty seems to make it work.

Album of the week: Justin Townes Earle, The Saint of Lost Causes.

Currently reading: Fonda Lee, Jade City; Touraj Daryaee, Sasanian Persia: The Rise and Fall of an Empire.

The Medieval Crossbow

Disclosure: Dr. Ellis-Gorman ran a Twitter giveaway for this book. After I won the drawing I told him that I would post a review of the book to my blog.

One of my favorite computer games as a teenager was Age of Empire II. The civilization I played most frequently were the Britons, whose unique unit, the longbowman, I used en masse to devastating effect. I gravitate to the Britons in this and other games principally because the strengths that the game designers give to these units fit my play-style that tends to be quite deliberate, but the reasons for my particular fascination with the longbow and its practitioners were myriad and various.

In part, the longbow had literally become a fixture in folklore. I was, and remain, fascinated by Robin Hood even though the purported chronology of Robin Hood and his trusty bow is ahistorical (royal mandates that are sometimes discussed with this weapon date to the fourteenth century, more than a century after Richard I died). Despite some modern iterations of the story where Robin Hood adopts smaller recurve bows modeled on those he saw on crusade, the longbow nevertheless remains firmly entrenched in this story.

But my interest in those parts of the national folklore coincided with a period in my life when I was fascinated by the battlefield aspect of military history (as opposed to questions of logistics and messaging that I am more drawn to these days). In this context, it was only natural that I be drawn the pitched battles of The Hundred Year’s Wars like Crécy and Agincourt where, the story goes, the English longbowmen triumphed over the knights and hired crossbows of the French. These battles became an essential component of the British national narrative and thus the supremacy of the longbow over the crossbow became almost a shibboleth, at least in the anglophone understanding of the Middle Ages.

It was thus with great interest that I read Stuart Ellis-Gorman’s The Medieval Crossbow. This book, a revision of Ellis-Gorman’s PhD dissertation, is an up-to-date history of the crossbow that aptly explores the ubiquity of the weapon.

The Medieval Crossbow is divided into two broad sections.

The first part of the book is a technical dossier that offers a clear discussion of the different pieces that made this weapon function. While a crossbow is a crossbow, Gorman points out some of the subtle innovations in trigger mechanisms that would release the “rolling nut” and fire the bolt (15–16). While such details might seem like mundane concerns, they also allow Ellis-Gorman to touch elsewhere on the possibility that the European crossbow was not explicitly related to the much earlier Chinese one that used an entirely different trigger mechanism (72–73). This dossier also examines reloading systems (spanning devices) from the stirrup attached to the stock that allow an archer to use his leg muscles in spanning the bow (17–18) to the cranequin gearbox that winches a the string back (18–20)–and more.

The initial discussion of the parts of the crossbow then transitions into an evaluation of the wide range of different crossbows that existed. In short, while all crossbows shared certain characteristics, there wasn’t just one crossbow. In fact, Ellis-Gorman includes in this discussion the short-lived phenomenon of the “gun crossbow” that was a hybrid weapon that was simultaneously a wheel-lock musket and a crossbow (45–46).

This section concludes with a discussion of the different technical and, at times, fanciful, representations of the crossbow that appeared in contemporary art.

The second part of the book offers a chronological account of the medieval crossbow. As is often true in books of this sort, this history has little narrative to it. Instead, Ellis-Gorman leads the reader through a series of events in which the crossbow appeared in order to both demonstrate the how the bow and its use evolved over the course of the Middle Ages and to reevaluate a series of battles in which the crossbow featured. These episodes usually address two related issues: the ambiguity of the sources and the strategic and technical consideration of the crossbow in the event.

Take Crécy, about which Ellis-Gorman says that it would be “impossible to write a history of the crossbow without” (108). After all, this was the battle most conceived of as a showdown between the longbow wielding yeoman archer and the Genoese crossbowman. Ellis-Gorman works through the battle from the technical perspective of the two bows and concludes that the popular narratives about the superiority of one over the other are misplaced when the performance of the crossbowmen can be better explained by the failures of leadership, and points out in the process that even the English went on to employ Genoese crossbowmen in the years after the battle.

More than anything, this reevaluation demonstrates the ubiquity of the crossbow in this period. The bow was an integral and effective weapon of Medieval warfare, and I particularly liked how Ellis-Gorman’s treatment allowed for fuzziness both in when the weapon came into existence and in how it transitioned from primarily a weapon of war to primarily a weapon of sport in the later middle ages.

In fact, my least favorite part of the book had nothing to do with the arguments put forward. Ellis-Gorman opens every chapter with an anecdotal story related to the crossbow. For instance, the introduction opens with a narration of the death of King Richard I of England, who died after taking a crossbow bolt outside Château de Châlus-Chabrol in 1199. As a writer, I understood the impulse. The stories offered him an easy hook for that section while also allowing him to tell more crossbow stories that he came across while conducting research. However, this was also one place where I detected some unevenness in the transition from the extremely narrow audience of the dissertation and a wider audience of a monograph. Basically, outside of a loose chronological fit, I did not always see the relevance of the chosen story to the argument of the chapter. That said, this is a minor complaint: it was not that these sections detracted from the value of this book so much as I sometimes found them distracting while I tried to fit the pieces together.

All told, The Medieval Crossbow is a compelling book. I am neither a medievalist nor a military historian, but I nevertheless gained a new appreciation for this particular piece of technology.

The Muskening

I will admit that I am watching the mess that is Elon Musk’s early tenure at Twitter with a certain amount of perverse joy, as a long time critic of the man. And yet, I also regret that this is the public forum where all of my prior assumptions and criticisms once again get confirmed because it comes at the expense of both the employees at Twitter and a larger number of people who were able to exploit its potential for virality to build a public following and, from that, economic opportunities.

My own relationship with Twitter has been decidedly mixed. I am an active user, and my follower count topped out at just over 1700 on the same day that the company’s purchase was finalized, but I have done precious little to cultivate that list. I tweet a little bit, retweet a little bit more, and try to interact with interesting accounts, but I actually think that the greatest key to reaching that number is that I have just always been there.

That is, I created my Twitter account in 2008, before hashtags were an official part of the Twitter functionality and before it was possible to create threads. I don’t even know how many accounts existed back then because a quick internet search only returned data going back to 2010, which also happens to be when the new owner created his account. This was also before I went to graduate school. I was managing a Quiznos in Boston at the time, waiting to hear back about graduate school applications, and trying to keep my Greek fresh in case I got in. I also had no plans to make this a professional “historian” Twitter account because, well, I wasn’t a professional historian when I started the account and I only had the loosest idea of what that would even look like. By the time that #twitterstorians and #classicstwitter, I was already here and so became absorbed into those movements. My Twitter usage has evolved over the years, especially because I prefer interacting with people to generating original content. I still sometimes find the juxtaposition of academic and non-academic activities somewhat awkward, even as I deeply appreciate its democratizing effect on knowledge creation and how it shows that (most) professors have interests beyond their immediate research subjects.

Frankly, the histrionic meta-commentary about whether to stay on Twitter or to find a new platform that has unfolded in the days since the purchase annoys me more than does the leadership transfer of one billionaire to another. I shared a lot of people’s concerns about being able to promote my writing and with the likely proliferation of hate speech even beyond what is currently tolerated. However, my Twitter experience is generally tolerable because I make frequent use of the mute features aggressively curate my experience there. Nobody online is entitled to my attention. I expected that the Twitter experience would degrade over the coming months and years, but I would be fine so long as those pieces of functionality continued to exist.

The first week of the Musk experience is beyond anything I could have predicted, starting with the new owner boosting a vile conspiracy that excused an act of political violence against the Pelosi family and then blaming the loss in advertising revenue on activists, when, in fact, the advertisers froze their buys over other fears that were exacerbated by Musk having fired the people they coordinated with at the company and then Musk’s performance on a conference call with them. The advertising fracas took place against the backdrop of obvious attempts to monetize a site that has never turned a profit because Musk had been locked into a mindbogglingly stupid offer to purchase Twitter for vastly more than it was worth. Thus his attention turned to the blue check mark, which is nothing more than an emoji that “verifies” that “an account of public interest” is who they say they are. Or at least it did. Musk first proposed a $20 dollar per month fee for verification, which led to him publicly bartering, perhaps in jest on his part, with both Stephen King and Garfield the cat. King adamantly refused to pay a dime, to which supporters of Musk asked how Stephen King would stay relevant without that blue check.

Twitter’s greatest success is in persuading a lot of people that what happens there is real life.

All of which brings me to the roll-out of the new Twitter Blue. For $7.99 a month, users will receive perks like a blue check mark “just like celebrities, companies and politicians,” as well as an edit function (just learn to accept typos, it’s fine), and a promise to show only half the number of ads, which strikes me as only meaningful if there is transparency about the number of ads one sees now and could easily be construed as a threat to drown free accounts in a torrent of ads. While I am inclined not to believe Musk’s claims that this paid service will reduce the number of bot accounts, the more pressing question for how I use Twitter is what this will do to the content on my feed. Twitter has had an algorithmic timeline for a number of years now, but I refuse to use it because whether I am interacting with friends and colleagues or following an event live, I want to be able to see Tweets as they happened. So long as that function continues to exist I can tolerate the other changes, but Musk’s vision of “free speech” seems to include a demand that other people listen to you and he is willing to offer you that function for a moderate monthly fee. In particular, Twitter Blue will offer paid users algorithmic priority for their Tweets. If this means that option for a chronological timeline goes away, then it might well render the site unusable for me.

However, the proof is going to be in the pudding. If the site becomes unusable for me or no longer serves my needs I will stop using it in the same way that I stopped using Facebook a decade ago. I will continue to trundle along there in the meantime, and I also keep a list of the other places where I can be found online.

The most common destination for people I follow leaving Twitter right now is Mastodon, which has many of the same Twitter functions. I created an account back in April, if for no other reason than to have a presence there. My initial impressions of the site are mixed. For one thing, rather than simply making a Twitter account, you join one of the many Mastodon instances, each of which has its own code of conduct. This fragmentation creates a local timeline populated by “toots” from the people in your little interest group, but then also you have a home timeline created by the people you follow who can be from any instance. These and other differences have taken some getting used to, but I would describe them as different rather than either good or bad.

My other observation about Mastodon is that writing there feels to me much more like micro-blogging than Twitter ever did. Where Twitter allowed 140 characters and then expanded out to 280, Mastodon allows 500. Critics of Twitter’s brevity argue that the limits killed nuance and encouraged flippancy, I appreciated the challenge of expressing ideas concisely. I find that 500 characters is just enough that I can slip back toward being long-winded and that is giving me pause on how I want to use the site.

Ultimately, the experience on Mastodon is going to be determined by the people on it. The instance I joined at first and the fact that my early activity on the platform has been academic means that Mastodon feels a bit like an academic conference to me right now. I can talk about things that are not academic, but more than a few people will probably give me the side eye for doing so. I certainly don’t mind academic conferences and will be happy to stay on Mastodon, perhaps on this server, perhaps migrating to another one when I have some time to explore my options, even if it never evolves past this, but it does mean that my relationship to the platform will be different than was my relationship to Twitter.

Then again, a lot has changed in the last fourteen years so perhaps these changes should be expected.

What is Making me Happy: a tea infuser

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

This week: a tea infuser

I switched from coffee to tea a few years ago after it turned out that coffee was contributing to some health issues I was having. There are days when I really miss coffee (most of them end in y), but the pain was mitigated somewhat in that I also like tea, particularly varieties of largely unflavored black teas that I drink with just a little bit of milk—i.e., the same way that I like my coffee.

When I moved into my current office I had visions of a regular tea service that I could share with students. I brought an electric kettle, a ceramic mug, and a variety of tea bags. I drank some of these teas and did manage to give away some cookies last year, but the pandemic habits last year and so far this year mean that I haven’t yet shared a tea with anyone. Gradually I resigned myself to bringing a travel mug from home and sipping on that throughout the day. Satisfactory, if not satisfying.

A few weeks ago, I decided to invest in a tea set up for my office that I could enjoy more. After a little internet research, I settled on Adagio Tea’s ingenuiTEA, a 16 oz loose-leaf tea infuser that offers me a little tea ritual to perform every day in my office. One week in, and I am quite taken with this system.

A pot of tea steeping, earlier today.

The infuser is a clever little contraption. You place the tea leaves and water directly into the main compartment, which has a mesh strainer over the release mechanism. When the infuser is resting on a flat surface gravity holds the release valve in place, but it when it is placed over the top of a cup, that valve is pushed open and the tea drains out the bottom.

After the first infusion I just leave the leaves in place and use them for a second mug sometime later in the day. My biggest problem to this point is that I need to pace myself. A fun new toy and ready availability of a fresh brew means that I have been altogether too caffeinated this week.

The next step to this little adventure is going to be further exploring the world of loose leaf teas. I am currently drinking Harney and Sons’ English Breakfast, mostly because it was the loose leaf that I had available. But now that I have a fun new toy with which to make tea, I am starting to set my sights on other varieties of unflavored black tea. Suggestions for where to look are welcome—I just don’t like bergamot and often avoid additives altogether.

#AcWriMo2022

It is November first, which means that it is once against AcWriMo, an academic writing challenge inspired by National Novel Writing Month.

I read through my blog archive in preparation for this post, as I often do when I sit down to write this sort of annual post. After all, I get frustrated with myself when it seems that I am writing the same things over and over. This tag first appeared in 2012, just one year after PhD2Published launched the challenge. I was a second year PhD student at the time, just starting to send ill-fated article manuscripts off for review and preparing for my comprehensive exams with not even the slightest inkling what my dissertation project would end up being.

(How I came to that project is a curious story that points to my atypical journey through graduate school.)

The tag then fell dormant for six years only to begin an annual appearance in 2018, a year and a half after I received my PhD and at a time when I was working on my book proposal. I wrote four posts that year, following a series of prompts created by Margy Thomas of Scholarshape that were designed to inspire metacognitive reflection on the writing process.

2019 saw just one post that was quite gloomy and frustrated because I felt that I was nearing the end of the road in academia. 2020, year one of the pandemic, was more of the same, except now with an attempted return to the goal-setting mandate. I did not hit my goals. By November 2021 I had started my current job and I was starting to acclimate to my schedule and established a single goal of a month-long metacognitive exercise about my writing…that I also did not hit.

So where does that leave me for 2022?

2022 has been a good year for my writing overall, if also more boom-and-bust than is ideal. I started the year with an article that had been rejected a couple of times getting accepted at Classical Quarterly and submitting the final manuscript for my first book at University of Michigan Press. That book has now also gone through copy edits and proof. Between these stages I also turned in five of the eight small pieces that I had outstanding between the pandemic and conditions of my employment, as well as a delivering a conference paper and a book review. The progress has mostly been confined to projects years in the making, though, and I’m having more trouble creating the space for new writing projects.

I have also recently returned to writing in a journal more or less nightly, both as a quiet, cathartic way to wind down before bed and as an extension of my writing discipline. Once upon a time I wrote in that space most days, often as a way of settling my mind before jumping into work on my dissertation. I fell out of that habit in the past few years, but I find that I maintain better equilibrium when I giving myself the space to write in my journal.

The other way that 2022 has been good for my writing is that I started a virtual writing group with Vicky Austen. I have participated in these in the past run by people in the UK, but I’m not in a place right now where I can reasonably wake up at 3am to write, so I suggested that we start one for those of us in this hemisphere. The practice of setting aside two hours twice a week to work in a communal, supportive environment has been enormously helpful as I am trying to re-establish a regular writing habit rather than one that means working feverishly to hit deadlines and then slumps because I’m forced to set aside that work in order to catch up on everything else that I fell behind on because I was writing.

This year I am setting for myself six targets for AcWriMo:

  1. Finish and submit my three outstanding short pieces. They just need to be off my plate so that I can focus on something else.
  2. Spend at least one hour each week writing on one of my new academic projects. For this goal I’m going to set an absurd (for me) target of 500 words an hour, for a minimum of 2,000 fresh words on top of whatever else I write this month.
  3. Write one book review blog post per week. These posts have been a casualty of the general chaos of my life recently, but I want to get back in the habit of writing them for some, if not all, of the books I read. First up is Stuart Ellis-Gorman’s The Medieval Crossbow which I promised to review after I won it in his online giveaway.
  4. Write one other blog post per week. Writing begets writing, as they say.
  5. Continue journaling every night. In particular: November has 30 days: write 28 entries.
  6. Write a recap blog post for December 1 that reviews the targets and reflects on my month in writing.

I see two potential complications with this set of targets.

First, one might reasonably ask whether these targets are suitably academic—which one might ask about so much of what I end up doing. The first two goals clearly fit the bill, while the back three are more about using this month to re-establish good writing habits. Basically, when I write more in general I end up writing more on my academic projects.

Second, I am curious whether this is yet another instance of unreachable targets that will be counter-productive when it comes to building the sustainable habits that I claim to want. This is of particular note because four of these five goals are set on top of whatever other writing I do. I guess there is only one way to find out.

On Privilege

I often see discourse about things happening on Twitter before I see the “offending” tweet. This weekend one thread of the discourse centered on a professor who has books in his office that he gives to students who express interest.

The lines were drawn.

On the one side: people who praised the practice as an act of intellectual generosity.

On the other: those who consider it a mark of extreme privilege.

To be honest, I was confused about the whole thing until I saw the original tweet. My campus office is lined with shelves that I am progressively filling with research and teaching materials, some from the library, some from my personal collection. I have given away a number of books over the years as a process of curating my library, but it struck me as a bit extreme to give away books that I might want to use.

However, my confusion dissipated when I saw the original tweet. The professor had a large, well-lit office with a few chairs in front of a wooden desk. Around the outside of the office were shelves that he had curated to look more like an inviting bookstore display designed to invite students into his research speciality. In other words, the office looked like a space for engaging students and not primarily the place where he was conducting his research—whether or not he is also using it for that.

To the charge of privilege, I think the answer has to be “yes, and?” That office, those shelves, and the students are all marks of privilege, but so what? What is the alternative?

There are basically three options when it comes to privilege:

  1. Reap the benefits while remaining oblivious to, and/or silent about, where those benefits come from and thus tacitly endorse the status quo.
  2. Reap the benefits while seeking to further entrench systems that will benefit you to the maximal extent.
  3. Reap the benefits, but also use the privilege to help others.

That is, performative self-flagellation won’t offset the existence of privilege. The question is not whether someone has privilege, but what they are choosing to do with their privilege. I am of course jealous of this professor’s office and I wish I had the resources to give away books more freely, but it also seems patently absurd to become outraged online at someone sharing an act of intellectual and financial generosity.

I suspect that this outrage, to the extent that it is sincere, stems from a couple of places.

First, the nature of academia plants a toxic combination of entitlement, bitterness, and competition in some people who become disillusioned with their lot in it. These people often believe that they ought to be somewhere more prestigious and they treat every interaction as a zero-sum game in the service of advancing themselves. This is a reaction to systemic factors made worse in our current age of austerity, social media, burnout that has accompanied pandemic teaching. Thus the hostile reaction to seeing acts of generosity.

The second, I think, is a function of the way society approaches philanthropy and personal branding. In his 2018 book, Winners Take All, Anand Giriharadas made an argument that modern philanthropy is a charade (according to the subtitle) wherein elites make a big hullaballoo about their efforts to improve the world, but then structure their programs to maximize both tax breaks and profits and thus further entrench their own position in elite society. This theme also emerges in Patrick Radden Keefe’s Empire of Pain about the Sackler dynasty. At the same time, contemporary viral economic advice seems to fetishize entrepreneurship and personal branding. Taken together, it is possible view every every act of generosity or kindness expressed on social media cynically as an attempt at personal branding that clearly must have an ulterior motive. The charge of “privilege,” in this context, is levied as a way to somehow delegitimize that generosity.

There are reasons to be suspicious of elite philanthropy, many of our economic systems are structured around pitting people against one another, and social media is a cancer eating away at our brains, but neither of these explanations hold water at the end of the day. This professor is operating from a place of privilege, so what? Privilege is, but when given an opportunity this person also gives away books to his students. While not every act of generosity is going to be the gift of books, is this general idea of giving back not something that we all ought to aspire to?

Course Planning: “Historicizing Speculative Fiction”

I have had an abiding love of speculative fiction for about as long as I can remember. I have a memory of my father reading the stories of Tolkien and Lewis to me and my younger brothers, and, at some point, I started reading ahead on my own to complete my first of many read-throughs of The Lord of the Rings. I started reading The Wheel of Time in elementary school and was deeply disturbed by descriptions of the blight. I picked up A Song of Ice and Fire sometime in middle school, mostly because I was drawn to the cover art. I also read a lot of bad speculative fiction in those days and am retroactively pleased with my youthful dissatisfaction with certain books.

I say all of this by way of prologue.

First year students at Brandeis (my undergraduate institution) took a “University Seminar in Humanistic Inquiries” course. These courses are designed as seminars on a coherent topic that begins establishing transferable skills and lays a foundation for further progression in college. If I’m being honest, I don’t recall my section of this course being particularly successful (I got into my third choice, after my top choice taught by my future adviser filled up before I enrolled), but I like the idea of the course.

Truman State offers “Self and Society” seminars that work toward the same end while also promoting multi- and inter-disciplinary thinking. One of the myriad of things that has been consuming my time this semester is that I was offered an opportunity to design and offer a course. The remit of these courses have to meet a certain level of disciplinary background, they are also a space that can allow for professors to create courses based on their areas of interest, outside the usual disciplinary constraints. The course I pitched, and that I am now designing to be taught next semester is “Historicizing Speculative Fiction.”

I read speculative fiction as a historian, which makes sense given my professional training and areas of expertise. One of my pet peeves about speculative fiction is when the world itself is undeveloped, while, by contrast, I will often overlook narrative or character issues if I have fallen in love with a creative world. When I proposed the course, I explained that while these genres of literature have their roots in myths and legends, these invented worlds are reflections of real world issues. Thus, the course description:

In this section, we will use speculative fiction—particularly science fiction and fantasy stories—to approach the issues of Self and Society. Once framed as niche interests, these stories make up some of the biggest pieces of intellectual property in the world today. Such stories might seem like simple entertainments featuring wizards and elves and dragons, but these worlds and the ideas we bring with us to talk about them reflect very present concerns about society and our place in them. So step through the wardrobe with me and let’s see how we can use these stories to better understand ourselves.

My idea for the course is to build a series of thematic units each built around one novel, or a primary and a back-up that could be substituted in future iterations. These novels are supplemented with short stories, essays about popular culture, and selections from other authors. These units are interchangeable by design, such that each time the course is offered I can swap units in and out. For the first iteration, I have chosen four units: World-building and historicism (P. Djèlí Clark, A Master of Djinn), Power, Language and Authority (Ursula le Guin, The Tombs of Atuan), The Environment (Octavia Butler, Parable of the Sower), Self, Society, and the Worlds we Create (Susanna Clarke, Piranesi). You can see the core reading list at the end of this post.

The core reading list is intentionally diverse, with the intent being to break students away from the expected canon for a course like this and to introduce them to the range of creative stories that exist. I won’t say that it was easy to craft this reading list. My personal tastes in fantasy stories run to very long books and extended series, and I can’t reasonably set the four books of The Dandelion Dynasty and expect the students to actually read them all, even though it might be the most perfect series for this course. However, I have also been greatly enjoying the excuse to read short stories in preparation for the course—more than once this semester you might have found me weeping in my office because of something I had just read. But I also have more to do still, since I would like at least one short story to fill out the unit on the environment.

The other work-in-progress for this course is the list of assignments. Some of these are going to be straightforward (e.g. book reviews and a course journal), but I am also concocting some creative assignments designed to get students to make students engage with the course themes in different ways. For instance, one assignment is going to be an “Inventing Utopia” group project where the students will work in groups to design their own utopias and present them as a poster presentation.

One thing I want to be particularly careful about with this course is striking a balance between sharing with the students all of these things that I think are particularly great without overloading the students who are in their first or second semester of college. I am beyond excited to be teaching this course, but if my enthusiasm leads to a course that is packed to the gills with amazing books and stories, then it won’t allow any space for the analysis and reflection where the actual learning happens.

Core Reading List

Introduction

  • Excerpts from Arthur stories and Beowulf
  • Nibedita Sen, “Ten Excerpts from an Annotated Bibliography on the Cannibal Women of Ratnabar Island”

Unit 1: World-building and historicism

  • P. Djèlí Clark, A Master of Djinn
  • Selections of J.R.R. Tolkien and George R.R. Martin
  • Adam Serwer, “Fear of a Black Hobbit” (the Atlantic)
  • Ursula Le Guin, “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas”

Unit 2: Power, Language, and Authority

  • Ursula le Guin, The Tombs of Atuan
  • Ken Liu, “Paper Menagerie”
  • Octavia Butler, “Speech Sounds”

Unit 3: The Environment

  • Octavia Butler, Parable of the Sower
  • Appendices to Dune

Unit 4: Self, Society, and the Worlds We Create

  • Susanna Clarke, Piranesi
  • Rebecca Roanhorse, “My Authentic Indian Experiencetm
  • N.K. Jemisin, “The Ones Who Stay and Fight”

Alternate Units

  • Orientalism: Saladin Ahmed, Throne of the Crescent Moon
  • Colonialism: undecided
  • Epic Journeys: Neil Gaimon, Ocean at the End of the Lane
  • Gender: Ursula le Guin, Left Hand of Darkness

Reading Lolita in Tehran

the cover of Azar Nafisi, Reading Lolita in Tehran: a memoir in books

A novel is not an allegory, I said as the period was about to come to an end. It is the sensual experience of another world. If you don’t enter that world, hold your breath with the characters and become involved in their destiny, you won’t be able to empathize, and empathy is at the heart of a novel. This is how you read a novel: you inhale the experience. So start breathing. I just want you to remember this. That is all; class dismissed.

Over the past few years I have found myself increasingly interested in reading memoirs. The problem is that memoir is a genre for which I have no great love. One of my favorite things to do to unwind is peruse lists of upcoming or classic novels and flag anything that looks interesting, but when I read lists of iconic memoirs the descriptions leave me utterly uninterested in reading on. What usually makes the difference for me is hearing the author talk about the genesis of the memoir, as happened with Kathryn Schulz’s Lost & Found. In the case of Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran: a memoir in books, my entry point was simpler: my partner had just finished the book and told me that that I might find it interesting. A blend of literature, the Iranian revolution, and teaching? Sure, sign me up.

Reading Lolita in Tehran spans the period between the early years of the Islamic Republic after the Revolution in 1979 when Azar Nafisi returned to the Iran and when she left with her family in 1997. Between these two chronological tentpoles, the discussion unfolds in a non-linear fashion. Each of the four sections of the books uses a different English-language author or book as its central focus. The first section, “Lolita” centers on an off-the-books class of young women who met at Nafisi’s home on Thursday mornings after she resigned from the her teaching post in Iran. The second, “Gatsby” takes as its central thread a class that read Fitzgerald’s novel in an Iranian University during the Revolution. The third, “James,” follows the events of “Gatsby” during the Iran-Iraq War, at a time when Nafisi had been expelled from her teaching position. The fourth and final section, “Austen,” follows from “Lolita” and focuses on the decision to leave Iran.

There was a lot I loved about this book. In part, Nafisi has a gift for spinning an elegant and considered phrase:

We complemented each other, because you my knowledge was impulsive and untidy, and hers meticulous and absolute.

Fiction was not a panacea, but it did offer us a critical way of appraising and grasping the world—not just our world but that other world that had become the object of our desires.

But I also found the book profoundly moving as a teacher for two reasons.

The first is a function of teaching literature and its possibilities. For as much as I love literature, my entire experience in English classes past high school was most of a semester my senior year of college during which I sat in on a Western Canon class. Everything else I know about literature has been picked up through the lens of Classics or found in tidbits here and there along the way. Perhaps unsurprisingly, therefore, when I teach literature I end up teaching it as a historian, rather than as a literary scholar. The discussion found in Reading Lolita is obviously a curated account of classroom activities, but I was inspired by the way that she talks about the discussions and am hoping to steal bits and pieces for a class I might be teaching soon that puts literature front and center. Some of the technical details of these classes might not pass muster with accreditation boards these days, but those observations were compelling in their own way.

(I suspect that my own unfamiliarity with some of the books she discusses caused me to miss some of the thematic resonances that she weaves into the memoir, but this was not something that troubled me over-much.)

The second appealed to me as a teacher and a historian. This period of Nafisi’s career centers on her time teaching English and American literature in Iran concurrently with the revolution that led to students marching through the streets chanting “Death to America.” For as much as I found myself fretting this summer about how I’ll approach certain topics in the classroom and people are justifiably concerned about coordinated attacks on teachers, I can only imagine trying to teach under circumstances where a) your students are divided into openly hostile factions; b) some students often vanish from class to participate in anti-American rallies; c) other students vanish because they’ve been arrested; and d) the state is aggressively attempting to institute an authoritarian fantasy. However, this was also a potent reminder about how teaching—and living—conditions can deteriorate over the course of just a few years.

Many passages in Reading Lolita in Tehran were also remarkable for their mundane observations about the messiness of everyday life:

In retrospect, when historical events are fathered up, analyzed and categorized into articles and books, their messiness disappears and they gain a certain logic and clarity that one never feels at the time. For me, as for millions of ordinary Iranians, the war came out of nowhere one mild fall morning: unexpected, unwelcome and utterly senseless.

My reading of this memoir was also timely in that it coincided with the current outpouring of protests in Iran sparked by the death of Mahsa Amini, a young woman who had been detained by the morality police. Every time something like this happens, the coverage invariably asks whether this is the time that popular pressure will topple the oppressive regime—as though there is a switch that gets flipped. I found Reading Lolita in Tehran a useful reminder both that individual people are participants in events and about the messiness of any transition. I like to tell my students that while we can often understand history through the institutions and social structures, nothing is necessarily inevitable. We can create a better world by working toward it. The reason why literature is a threat to any totalitarian fantasy is that it has the power to unlock something that allows people to imagine a world beyond its confines.

ΔΔΔ

Since my last book post I have mostly been struggling against the current of the semester with the result that my reading has slowed to a crawl. I finished Rebecca Roanhorse’s Black Sun, a fantasy novel in a world inspired by Mesoamerica that I found equal parts compelling and bafflingly-paced, and Saara el-Arifi’s The Final Strife, an African-inspired fantasy that played with issues of caste and race in a way that I really enjoyed. I am currently reading Tamsyn Muir’s Gideon the Ninth, which I don’t like nearly as much as I think a lot of people do and Ken Liu’s story collection The Paper Menagerie and other stories. This is a lot of fantasy, even by my standards, but I’m also preparing to teach a class in the spring on speculative fiction, so this is now a professional obligation as well as a private interest.