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Weekly Varia no. 7, 12/31/22

I write enough about myself this time of year through my end-of year reflections (writing and books are up, with a general meditation and resolutions to come) that I don’t feel the need for short essay about whatever I’m thinking about on a Saturday morning this week.

Happy New Year.

This week’s varia:

  • Peter Kidd documents manuscript provenance on his own blog. I’m not a regular reader, but his post this week caught my attention. For his tenth anniversary post, Kidd relates his exchange with the secretary of an author whose recent book appears to plagiarize his blog. The conversation includes denial, threats of lawyers (not on his part), and the claim that since his blog isn’t significant enough to warrant citation because it is just a blog. The last is particularly galling. Blogs might not pass through peer review and come out through academic publishers, but that doesn’t mean that they are always inconsequential. To paraphrase something that Dr. Sarah Bond has been saying for a number of years now: writing in academic blogs is an exercise in public scholarship that can help ensure the vitality of a field, but they will only be considered legitimate if people cite them. At the same time, plagiarism is still plagiarism. If you use an idea, cite it.
    • Since the original post went up, the publisher appears to have made the PDF of the book in question unavailable, digitally altered a bunch of the online material, and questions have emerged about both the staff and the physical office of the publisher. People associated with RECEPTIO responded aggressively with reverse accusations, threats to involve the police, and attempts to “anonymously” harass and dox Kidd in an attempt to preserve what increasingly appears to be a scam to funnel grant money through and convince people to spend fees for workshops at this “research institute.” Kidd has written several additional blog posts that address specific parts of her responses. I have seen more than one academic demand a movie about one of the most flagrant cases of scholarly malpractice that I can recall and how the whole thing unraveled in just under a week as researchers trained in the very particular skills of identifying how manuscripts influence one another and in spotting misinformation turned their attentions to RECEPTIO.
  • A great piece about Sudanese archaeologists doing work that has traditionally been done by Western expeditions that used local labor and expertise, but erased them from the process of interpreting the past and receiving credit for the work.
  • Hamline University has non-renewed the contract of a contingent professor of religion who offered a lesson in an online class about historical Muslim representations of the Prophet Muhammad after a student complained. The Hamline Oracle has the fullest description of the incident and points out the steps that the professor took to offer content warnings and to allow observant Muslims to opt out of seeing the images. The administration is alleging that the lesson constitutes Islamophobia Rather than standing behind the subject matter expert, or, you know, historical reality, the administration chose to cut ties with the faculty member and could do so with no repercussion because the person in question had no job security. This is one of the major issues with contingent contracts in higher education right now. I also recommend Amna Khalid’s essay explaining why the administration’s actions offend her both as a professor and as a muslim.
  • A court has ruled that the Marine Corps cannot reject Sikh men who refuse to shave their beards based on their religious beliefs. The Marines claimed that these rules were a matter of national security, but the court sided with the plaintiffs who alleged that the policy reflects “stereotypes about what Americans should look like.”
  • George Santos has admitted to “embellishing” key parts of his biography, but insists that he is neither a fraud nor a criminal (CNN). I’m not comfortable about how people are questioning his sexuality given that he was previously married to a woman, but the rest of these are serious issues.
  • Stefan Passantino, the lawyer representing Cassidy Hutchinson during the January 6 probe encouraged her to lie about the events of that day and obfuscated when she inquired who was paying his fees, probably because the funding appears to have passed through a Trump-connected PAC, creating a conflict of interest that he did not disclose.
  • There are currently five transgender athletes competing according to their gender identity in Missouri high school sports, but ten bills to limit their participation in high school athletics pre-filed with the Missouri legislature. Because, of course there are (Missouri Independent).
  • Southwest Airlines cancelled thousands of flights this week. Weather is partly to blame, but people in the know are saying that Southwest’s antiquated scheduling system and staffing problems bear more responsibility. Pete Buttigieg had asserted that conditions were getting better, but 34 state attorneys general had written to him urging him to impose fines for airlines with avoidable cancellations and delays, something he has not done. Naturally, money that could have gone toward modernizing their systems has been spent on executive bonuses, dividends, stock buybacks, and lobbying.
  • Andrew Tate has been detained in Romania on charges of human trafficking…because the video he recorded responding to Greta Thunberg online retort displayed a pizza box that allowed authorities to confirm his whereabouts. Romanian officials are claiming that the timing is coincidental, but it makes for a better story.
  • Dinosaur skeletons rarely preserve their last meal, but a researcher named Hans Larsson recently identified such a find and discovered that the microraptor (a 3-foot tall dinosaur) had eaten a small mammal. Dinosaurs remain very cool.

Album of the week: Johnny Clegg and Savuka, “Cruel, Crazy, Beautiful World”

Currently reading: Reeves Wiedeman, Billion Dollar Loser, Mary Boatwright, Peoples of the Roman World

My 2022 in Books

As part of a broader overhaul of my end of year series, I’m ditching my usual “lists of note” about books and shows and movies and everything else in favor of a single post with both my favorite books and the long list of everything I read (including both academic and non-academic reading lists).

I had planned to release this post on the final day of the year, but I have a good sense of how much I will read tomorrow and the post I had in mind for today is not yet ready.

I see a few trends from this list. My reading volume took only a small step back from 2021, despite the busyness of my year. I increased the amount of ancient history I read, and I generally kept my reading diet stable at thirty percent nonfiction, more than forty percent written by women (among other metrics that I track). As the list below indicates, I was particularly blown away by a lot of the general nonfiction I read below. However, as compared with the past few years, each of which included two or three of my all-time favorite books, almost all of my favorite fiction of this year were fantasy or science fiction. This reflects not only the type of books I had the capacity to engage with most of the year, but also the quality of recent speculative fiction, and I actively disliked the few literary novels I read that have been appearing on “best of 2022” lists.

What follows is three “best” lists for things I read this year: Ancient History, general nonfiction, and fiction of all sorts. Then comes a roughly-sorted list of the remaining nonfiction, followed by the remaining fiction, lightly sorted so that books by the same authors appear together. Links go to any book that I wrote about this year, though time constraints meant that I wrote about fewer books than usual this year.

Top ancient history

  • Greek Slave Systems in their Eastern Mediterranean Context, David M. Lewis
  • The Breadmakers, Jared T. Benton
  • The Rise of Rome, Kathryn Lomas
  • King of the World, Matt Waters

Top other nonfiction

Top fiction

  • Empire of Gold, Shannon Chakraborty
  • Speaking Bones, Ken Liu
  • Babel, R.F. Kuang
  • Jade War, Fonda Lee
  • Cloud Cuckoo Land, Anthony Doerr

Nonfiction (everything else)

  • The Landscape of History, John Lewis Gaddis
  • Rome and Provincial Resistance, Gil Gambash
  • Three Stones Make a Wall, Eric Cline
  • The Athenian Empire, Lisa Kallet and John Kroll
  • Other Natures, Clara Bosak-Schroeder
  • For the Freedom of Zion, Guy Maclean Rogers
  • Masada, Jodi Magness
  • The Greco-Persian Wars, Erik Jensen
  • The Roman Retail Revolution, Stephen Ellis
  • Remembering the Roman Republic, Andrew Gallia
  • Invisible Romans, Robert Knapp
  • Sasanian Persia, Touraj Daryaee
  • The Ancient Near East, Amanda H. Podany
  • Empire and Political Cultures in the Roman World, Emma Dench
  • The Bronze Lie, Myke Cole
  • The Bright Ages, Matt Gabriele and David Perry
  • The Medieval Crossbow, Stuart Ellis-Gorman
  • Sourdough Culture, Eric Pallant
  • Koshersoul, Michael Twitty
  • A History of the World in Six Glasses, Tom Standage
  • The Paradox of Plenty, Harvey Levenstein
  • Bad Jews, Emily Tamkin
  • Branding the Nation, Melissa Aronczyk
  • The End of Burnout, Jonathan Malesic
  • Four Thousand Weeks, Oliver Burkeman
  • All About Me, Mel Brooks
  • Story Mode, Trevor Strunk
  • Specifications Grading, Linda B. Nilson
  • Born to Run, Christopher McDougall
  • What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, Haruki Murakami
  • Origins of the Wheel of Time, Michael Livingston
  • Billion Dollar Loser, Reeves Wiedeman

Fiction (everything else)

  • Abaddon’s Gate, James S.A. Corey
  • Cibola Burn, James S.A. Corey
  • Nemesis Games, James S.A. Corey
  • Babylon’s Ashes, James S.A. Corey
  • Tiamat’s Wrath, James S.A. Corey
  • Leviathan Falls, James S.A. Corey
  • Persepolis Rising, James S.A. Corey
  • A Stranger in Olondria, Sofia Samatar
  • The Jasmine Throne, Tasha Suri
  • The Silence of the Sea, Yrsa Sigurdardóttir
  • A Hero Born, Jin Yong
  • The Chosen and the Beautiful, Nghi Vo
  • Kalpa Imperial, Angélica Gorodischer
  • Slow Horses, Mick Herron
  • Dead Lions, Mick Herron
  • Real Tigers, Mick Herron
  • The Books of Jacob, Olga Tokarczuk
  • Transparent City, Ondjaki
  • The Life of the Mind, Christine Smallwood
  • The Dinner, Herman Koch
  • Saga v. 1-3, Brian K. Vaughn
  • The Immortal King Rao, Vauhini Vara
  • The Final Strife, Saara el-Arifi
  • The Candy House, Jennifer Egan
  • Go Tell It On the Mountain, James Baldwin
  • The Memory Police, Yoko Ogawa
  • Gods of Jade and Shadow, Silvia Moreno-Garcia
  • Black Sun, Rebecca Roanhorse
  • Gideon the Ninth, Tamsyn Muir
  • The Pharmacist, Rachelle Atalla
  • A Psalm for the Wild Built, Becky Chambers
  • How High We Go In the Dark, Sequoia Nagamatsu
  • The Cartographers, Peng Shepherd
  • The Lost Metal, Brandon Sanderson

My 2022 in Writing

I have decided to rethink my year-in-review series this year. Where I have traditionally provided separate posts for anything published and anything published here, I am combining those two posts into one as a way to better address my writing as a coherent whole. This post thus includes a status update on projects, a list of things published, the best* posts of the year, and some raw stats from the blog.

Status update

2022 was a year of booms and busts for my writing. I started tracking how much time I spent on academic writing back in 2017 and this year marked the second lowest total of the past five years (2019 was a deep nadir for reasons of employment). But my writing this year also swung between periods of exceptional stamina, like a three week period in February where I averaged almost twenty hours each week, punctuated by periods when I didn’t write anything. Even the success of the writing group I started with Vicky Austen couldn’t keep me on track as my semester spun wildly out of control.

The state of my writing projects also contributed to the stop-and-start nature of my writing since the bursts often coincided with imminent deadlines. For instance, every few months this year I had a new deadline while moving my first book through the phases of production. That book is due out in March 2023. The same thing happened on a smaller scale with respect to an article accepted for Classical Quarterly that I am optimistic will appear next year and a book review, and I have also been wrapping up some smaller projects. By contrast, I had to do very little work on the only piece I had come out this year because it had been caught up in the production pipeline.

Finishing, or nearly finishing, these projects, many of which I once thought would be my final academic publications, has also left me thinking through my research pipeline. I have ideas in the works and at least one commitment for 2023, but one of my tasks over the next few months will be to put this in order and figure out where I want to spend my energy.

Perhaps not coincidentally, then, I also did less public writing and fewer presentations in 2022. I still worked on the SCS Blog’s contingent faculty series, but I was not the lead editor for either of the features that we produced this year. (I particularly recommend Kristina Chew’s two part essay.) I also delivered just one conference paper, connecting the mass of people not from Athens on the Sicilian Expedition to the revolt the following year. My favorite piece of writing of the year was a talk about bread baking for a student group on campus that offered “a family and social history of bread.”

It was a similar story on this blog. I wrote somewhat less frequently, but I produced more words than I ever have before because the average post length ballooned enormously.

Publications

“Remembering injustice as the perpetrator?: Orators, Cultural Memory, and the Athenian Conquest of Samos,” in The Orators and their Treatment of the Recent Past, ed. A. Kapellos (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2022), 447–63.

Previous years: 2021; 2020; 2018

I have a complete list of my publications, with links to everything available online, here. If you are interested in reading any of my work and do not have access to it, email me for a pdf or off-print.

Best* Posts

Previous years: 2021; 2020; 2019; 2018; 2017; 2016

Blog stats to date, with a few days left to go

  • Posts: 65
  • Words: 69,482
  • Av. length: 1,069
  • Visitors: 7,941
  • Views: 10,916

Specsitol: a semester reflection

I submitted grades a little over a week ago and promptly withdrew, exhausted, into a little fort with curtain walls made of novels. At least that’s what it felt like. The specific details might be exaggerated.

Several times I tried to break through the fog that had settled over my mind, but succeeded only in producing a silly post about pizza TV shows and the weekly varia post that I start compiling as soon as the previous week’s goes up. I could barely think about the semester that had just ended, let alone put those thoughts into any sort of coherent discussion.

Simply put, I had an exceptionally difficult semester, and one that rates among the very toughest I have ever experienced. Some issues stemmed from causes external to my classes (e.g. not getting some much-needed rest this summer and early semester indexing and proofing a book manuscript that put me perpetually behind), while others stemmed from things that happened in the classes, most of which I don’t want to talk about in this space because I don’t like talking about specific student activity in a public forum even when identifying details have been redacted, especially when there is nothing of universal value that can be gleaned by doing so.

Not every problem stemmed from these issues, of course.

Dissatisfied with traditional forms of grading, I dove headlong into the world of Specifications Grading for most of my courses this semester. To stick with the metaphor, I liked these waters but they also sent me crashing into the rocks.

The formula varied a little bit, class by class, but, in general I came up with a system where the students earned credit across four or five categories of assignments (e.g. journal entries, small assignments/participation, papers). Every assignment was graded using a bespoke rubric and it either met the standard and thus earned credit, or it did not. More work, and higher quality essays (the essay rubric had two tiers, one for basic competency and another for advanced) earned higher grades. To meet these higher standards, I allotted virtual tokens that the students could use either to revise their papers or turn work in late, pegging the number of tokens to the number of papers.

I entered the semester thinking that I had worked out a reasonably simple system that would give students the agency to decide what grade they were aiming for, make my expectations for each grade level clear, and provide in-semester flexibility that would allow students to do their best work. However, I had not anticipated that putting these assignments and expectations up front in the course would lead to cognitive overload for a significant number of students. In fact, I had a conversation in the final week of class with a student who said that this semester was much harder than the course they had taken the semester before even though the workload in the two courses was identical except that I had swapped one short weekly assignment for another. While there are other explanations why this student might have struggled with my course, I’m inclined to take the sentiment at face value because I saw evidence of the same struggle from other students who were struggling to interface with the information that I had provided in a way that made it harder to complete the work itself.

The core of this problem, I think is that many students were used to traditional grading schemes that allow students to muddle through to a passing grade without too much effort. By contrast, the system I devised required students to complete assignments in each category to a specified level in order to earn the grade. Passing my general education courses last semester did not require too much work, unless you simply neglected a graded category.

I am treating this as a messaging problem for now. Traditional grading schemes remain stupid and I’m not ready to abandon my attempt to find something better just yet.

However, the issue of students neglecting grade categories dovetailed with the tokens and flexible deadlines to create absolute chaos on my end. Here there were several intertwined issues.

Several semesters ago I developed a system for deadlines where students could receive an automatic extension by filling out a Google form before the due date. This policy has proven incredibly popular with my students. However, while I intend to keep it intact in some form, I am starting to question whether the system is having the intended effect. Rather than providing students the space to do their best work, I am finding that whatever grace I provide is filled by other classes with stricter deadlines such that my students wind up writing their papers at the last minute anyway, just several days later, and I had so many students taking the extension that it became a challenge to return papers in a timely fashion.

However, it was the tokens that turned this semester into a logistical nightmare. I set up the tokens anticipating that most would be used for revisions, knowing full well that revisions coming in at any point would cause some chaos. What I did not anticipate is that some portion of students would use most or all of their tokens to turn work in late. This meant that I had not only revisions, but also new work being turned in on no particular schedule throughout the semester, and I had difficulty keeping tabs on students who hadn’t turned in assignments, some of whom I knew were working on things and some of whom I did not.

Compounding these issues was, I think, a consequence of having a significant number of first year students. Anecdotally, from talking with friends who teach in high school, some students have been conditioned to think that flexible deadlines and the like mean that an assignment is optional. Or that whatever make-up assignment gets offered will be easier than the original assignment. As one explained:

“I’ll allow X to be redone/revised/resubmitted” is increasingly being taken as “I don’t need to do X, I’ll do the makeup Y later which will be easier anyway.”

This was obviously not what had been intended, but this collision of expectations and conditioning meant that I spent a significant amount of time amid the chaos of trying to grade everything just trying to track down missing work so that the students wouldn’t fail on those grounds. Oh, and I had 50% more students than I had in either semester last year.

Then there was the grading itself. I adopted a specifications system because it promised to offload some portion of the grading onto explicit rubrics where I could check the appropriate box. I loved not assigning grades to papers, but I quickly discovered several things that meant the system created just as much work as the mystery black box of traditional grading, if not more. The issues started because, I discovered, many students simply did not complete the assignments with the rubrics in mind and did not use the rubrics to check the work before submission. This meant that I often received work that did not fulfill the simplest rubrics.

These problems were particularly acute on the written assignments with its long, detailed rubric that should have provided guidance for the papers. I quickly realized that many of my students did not have the writing background to achieve the higher proficiencies, so simply checking the rubric box was not going to provide adequate guidance or encouragement. At the same time, while some students were not going to be aspiring to those grade tiers, I also couldn’t in good conscience provide detailed feedback for some students and not for others until the very end of the semester when the possibilities of revision had passed. By the last two weeks of the term it was clear that I would not be able to get caught up, so I offered that any student who wanted to revise their work could come to office hours and have their paper(s) marked in person so that they could receive feedback on how to meet the next tier. These meetings gave any student meant that (I think) any student aiming for higher grade tiers reached them, but they also meant that those weeks were a whirlwind of paper conferences.

Finally, my small assignments policy put a cherry on top of this disaster sundae.

The policy was simple. There were some number of small papers, in-class activities, exit-tickets, one-minute essays, and other activities that took place in class. If you weren’t there, you couldn’t make up the work. Unless you were an athlete at a competition. Or you got sick. Or had other “excused” absences. Right from the start, I found myself litigating what counts as a legitimate absence, which is one of my least favorite parts about taking attendance. Then, like with non-completion of work, I found myself around the middle of the semester worried about the number of students who seemed liable to fail (or otherwise drop grade tiers) because they had failed to adequately participate in the class. Since the opportunities for these points often did not come at regular intervals, I found myself inventing “optional extra” opportunities that would allow the students to bring their grade in that category up, which, in turn, created confusion about what assignments students actually needed to complete. Often, the students who completed the optional assignments were not the ones I had in mind when I created them. And, of course, adding all of these small assignments created a flurry of paperwork that I had to manage.

Chaos.

I should point out that for a non-negligible percentage of my students this system worked exactly as I envisioned, giving them agency to achieve grades based on their goals for the semester. Had I not felt compelled to give the students aiming for the “C” the same level of feedback I gave to those aiming for an “A,” my grading might have even been manageable—but, of course, almost everyone said that they were aiming for an “A” back in August.

I am not ready to abandon this grading mode, just yet, but it needs to be modified in critical ways for it to become sustainable and productive. The changes I have in mind to this point are:

  • Streamline my messaging and expectations. This means not only being clear about my expectations in terms of earning credit across multiple categories, but also clarifying that this is a labor-based grading scheme. It is designed to be transparent and achievable, but not necessarily easy. At the same time…
  • I want to submerge the mechanics of the participation grade. Some of the chaos this semester was created by the various points that students earned for doing in-class activities, which meant that this was something I had to track. I am not planning to change the activities that I do for small assignments, but my current thought for this category is to take a page out of the “ungrading” playbook. Instead of me assigning grading, the students will complete three reflections, one at the start, one at the middle, and one at the end of the term. The first one will set expectations and think about where they are at the start of the course. The middle two reflections will both have the students assign themselves a percentile grade for their own engagement with the course material. I will then plug the final percentile grade into a formula that adds or subtracts points based on attendance and maybe what percentage of small assignments they complete where perfect participation and attendance adds to score, a range results in no change, and excessive missed classes and activities results in lost points. I see a number of ways that this could go horribly wrong and I’m still working out the kinks, but it would also relieve the demand for me to track so many different assignments or create “optional” work.
  • I am going to rewrite the longer rubrics both to make them easier to follow and so that the students can explicitly use them as checklists. Similarly, I am going to print these rubrics and distribute them directly to my students.
  • Ditto for handouts on things like writing. I provide a lot of resources for the skills that I ask the students to master in these classes, but I find that even when directing students to them via presentation in front of the class, they are not being used because most students forget that they are there. I remember sticking handouts into my backpack never to be seen again, but at least having been handed a physical copy of something might help jog memories.
  • I am changing the token system. Tokens will only be used for turning in assignments late and probably limited to just 2, with a reward to the participation grade for every token left unused. Revision will be limited to the papers, but allowed for every paper, albeit probably with firmer deadlines for when a first round of revisions need to be complete.
  • Since none of this addresses how much time I spent responding to individual papers this semester, I am also likely going to lean more heavily on the language in the rubric and invite students looking to revise their papers to higher levels of achievement to come for conferences earlier in the semester.

Looking over these changes, there are still parts of this system I am concerned about. The ungrading formula, for instance, is an awkward beast to explain in the syllabus and it could lead to uncertainty about how the various non-paper assignments contribute to their grade. But I also think that there is a real possibility that these changes might be able to preserve what I liked about last semester while also steering into the sorts of written and metacognitive exercises that I find particularly valuable for students in a way that will make it a more sustainable and productive learning environment for everyone involved.

Andor is the best Star Wars since 1983

I am hardly the first person to say that Andor, the latest Star Wars release, is very good. In fact, this seems to be the consensus opinion among both people I know casually online and among critics. But what makes Andor particularly interesting is in how it is excellent.

At the most basic level, Andor is simply well-written, well-acted, and well-filmed television. Tony Gilroy’s show takes the viewer through three separate arcs, each of which gradually adds characters and builds complexity to the story. No episode is longer than an hour and most are less than forty-five minutes, but the spare dialogue packs an enormous punch, which, in turn, allows the show to soar.

I should start at the beginning.

Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) was one of the characters introduced in Rogue One, a daring and ruthless intelligence office who accompanies the raid to steal the Death Star plans. Andor starts years before, at a time when Cassian is living with his adopted mother Maarva Andor (Fiona Shaw) on the planet Ferrix. While trying to locate his sister who he hasn’t seen since before Maarva adopted him, Cassian kills two security personnel, thus drawing the attention of Syril Karn (Kyle Soller), an officious officer who ignores an order to brush the incident under the rug and starts an investigation with no name, but just enough information that Timm Karlo (James McCardle) can respond to the alert because he suspects that his girlfriend Bix Calleen (Adria Arjona) is sneaking off to spend time with her ex, Cassian, when she has been secretly passing information to the Rebellion.

Bix introduces Cassian to Luthen Rael (Stellan Skarsgård), and through Luthen to the larger apparatus of the inchoate rebellion. Cassian initially sees the Rebellion as a means to pay back his debts, but, inexorably, he becomes enmeshed in its mission. Andor also adds new characters on both sides of the conflict, including Senator Mon Mothma (Genevieve O’Reilly) and Supervisor Dedra Meero (Denise Gough). These stories are happening concurrently, too, which allows Gilroy to start with what could be a solo show and develop it into a complex harmony. In one particularly poignant moment, the show inserts a short wordless scene of an imprisoned and tortured Bix between two other scenes.

A lot of the praise for Andor centers on its sensitive treatment of the very concept of rebellion (I particularly recommend Abigail Nussbaum’s review). Where shows that broach this theme sometimes speak of rebellion as a good in its own right, Gilroy uses Andor as a vehicle to explore how oppressive systems drive one to rebel, and weaves that central premise deeply into the fabric of the show. Cassian is obviously exhibit A for this process, but it also manifests in Mon Mothma’s arc when she gradually realizes that her diligent opposition in the Senate is futile and Keno Loy’s (Andy Serkis) epiphany that the prison industrial complex is rigged, as well as in a host of smaller characters and moments that reveal the myriad of ways that can lead people at all levels of society into rebellion.

But Andor is also a show about how an empire sets in. Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) memorably declares to Peter Cushing’s Grand Moff Tarkin in Star Wars (1977), “The more you tighten your grip, Tarkin, the more star systems will slip through your fingers,” but the Empire by this point is fully-developed. They have a space station capable of destroying planets. The Empire clearly has a war machine in Andor, but it is hardly unassailable and if the Death Star is under construction, as there is some suggestion that the parts the prisoners are assembly parts for, we don’t know about it. Rather, the cruel machinery of Empire churns in more mundane ways: the board rooms of the security services, the imperial courtroom of the imperial magistrates, the prisons that despoil the environment, and the decisions to deter indigenous communities from their sacred spaces to clear the way for a new installation. More people interface with these systems than would have seen the Death Star. And, critically, they are created and perpetuated by people. Not faceless systems or the embodiment of evil, people.

And these systems are hard to resist, especially when you can’t see the whole picture. Resistance is a lonely, dangerous path that requires sacrifice, as captured in an exchange between Luthen and Lonni Jung (Robert Emms).

Lonni: “My sacrifice, it means nothing to you. Does it?

Luthen: “I said I think of you constantly, and I do. Your investment in the Rebellion is epic. A double life? Every day a performance? The stress of that? We need heroes, Lonni, and here you are.”

Lonni: “And what do you sacrifice?”

For all of this, I was particularly struck by how little this show relies on the existing mechanics of Star Wars canon.

Back in June I lamented that the attempts to “fill in the gaps” of the Star Wars mythology were strangling the franchise. Even a film like Rogue One, which I generally liked, tried to tell a fresh story while still bringing in Tarkin, Leia, and Vader–a choice that I thought undermined a lot of what it did well. By contrast, Andor brings in Cassian and Saw (Forest Whittaker) who had been introduced in Rogue One and builds out the character of Mon Mothma, who was briefly introduced in Return of the Jedi (1983, played by Caroline Blakiston). The emperor is mentioned a few times and once, that I caught, as Palpatine, Coruscant, the capital is a frequent setting, and the visual language is unmistakably Star Wars, but there the connections end. There is no Tatooine and no mention of the force. The doings of the Jedi and the Sith might as well be mythology, for all that they affect these people’s lives. Instead, Gilroy breathes life into a series of specific settings and characters, whether for the full twelve episodes or just a few minutes, which makes this both more harrowing and more memorable than anything Star Wars since the original trilogy.

In other words, this is exactly what I had hoped for from a Star Wars show.

What is “the college essay,” or ChatGPT in my classroom

Confession: I don’t know what is meant by “the college essay.”

This phrase has been the shorthand for a type of student writing deployed over the past few weeks in a discussion about the relationship between college classes and AI programs like ChatGPT-3 that launched in November, which I touched on in a Weekly Varia a few weeks ago. These programs produce a block of unique text that imitates the type of writing requested in response to a prompt. In its outline, input/output mimics what students do in response to prompts from their professors.

The launch of ChatGPT has led to an outpouring of commentary. Stephen Marche declared in The Atlantic that the college essay is dead and that humanists who fail to adjust to this technology will be committing soft suicide, which followed on from a post earlier this year by Mike Sharples declaring that this algorithm had produced a “graduate level” essay. I have also seen anecdotal accounts of professors who have caught students using ChatGPT to produce papers and concern about being able to process this as an honor code violation both because the technology is not addressed explicitly in the school’s regulation and because they lacked concrete evidence that it was used. (OpenAI is aware of these concerns, and one of their projects is to watermark generated text.) Some professors have suggested that this tool will give them no choice but to return to in-class, written tests that are rife with inequities.

But among these rounds of worry, I found myself returning to my initial confusion about the nature of “the college essay.” My confusion, I have decided, is that the phrase is an amorphous, if not totally empty, signifier that generally refers to whatever type of writing that a professor thinks his or her students should be able to produce. If Mike Sharples’ hyperbolic determination that the sample produced in his article is a “graduate level” essay is any guide, these standards can vary quite wildly.

For what it is worth, ChatGPT is pretty sure that the phrase refers to an admissions personal statement.

When I finished my PhD back in 2017, I decided that I would never assign an in-class test unless there was absolutely no other recourse (i.e. if someone above me demanded that I do so). Years of grading timed blue-book exams had convinced me that these exams were a mismatch for what history courses were claiming to teach, while a combination of weekly quizzes that the students could retake as many times as they want (if I’m asking the question, I think it is worth knowing) and take-home exams would align better with what I was looking to assess. This also matched with pedagogical commitment to writing across the curriculum. The quizzes provided accountability for the readings and attention to the course lectures, as well as one or more short answer questions that tasked the students with, basically, writing a thesis, while the exams had the students write two essays, one from each of two sets of questions that they were then allowed to revise. Together, these two types of assignments allowed the students to demonstrate both their mastery over the basic facts and details of the course material and the higher-order skills of synthesizing material into an argument.

My systems have changed in several significant ways since then, but the purpose of my assignments has not.

First, I have been moving away from quizzes. This change has been a concession to technology as much as anything. Since starting this system on Canvas, I moved to a job that uses Blackboard and I have not been able to find an easy system for grading short answer questions. I still find these quizzes a valuable component of my general education courses where they can consist entirely of true/false, multiple choice, fill in the blank, and other types of questions that are automatically graded. In upper-level courses where I found the short-answer questions to be the most valuable part of the assignment, by contrast, I am simply phasing them out.

Second, whether as a supplement to or in lieu of the quizzes, I have started assigning a weekly course journal. In this assignment, the students are tasked with choosing from a standard set of prompts (e.g. “what was the most interesting thing you learned this week,” “what was something that you didn’t understand this week form the course material? Work through the issue and see if you can understand it,” “what was something that you learned this week that changes something you previously wrote for this course?”) and then writing roughly a paragraph. I started assigning these journals in spring 2022 and they quickly became my favorite things to grade because they are a low-stakes writing assignment that give me a clear insight into what the students have learned from my class. Where the students are confused, I can also offer gentle guidance.

Third, I have stopped doing take-home exams. I realized at some point that, while take home exams were better than in-class exams, my students were still producing exam-ish essay answers and I was contributing to this problem in two ways. First, two essays was quite a lot of writing to complete well in the one week that I allotted for the exam. Second, by calling it an exam most students were treating it as only a marginal step away from the in class exam where one is assessed on whether they have the recall and in-the-moment agility to produce reasonable essays in a short period of time.

What if, I thought, I simply removed the exam title and spread the essays out over multiple paper assignments?

The papers I now assign actually use some of the same prompts that I used to assign on exams, which were big questions in the field the sort that you might see on a comprehensive exam, but I now focus on giving the students tools to analyze the readings and organize their thoughts into good essays. Writing, in other words, has become an explicit part of the assignment, and every paper is accompanied by a meta-cognitive reflection about the process.

Given this context, I was more sanguine about ChatGPT than most of the commentary I had seen, but, naturally, I was curious. After all, Sharples had declared that a piece of writing it produced was graduate level and Stephen Marche had assessed it lower, but still assigned it a B+. I would have marked the essay in question lower based on the writing (maybe a generous B-), and failed it for having invented a citation (especially for a graduate class!), but I would be on firmer footing for history papers of the sort that I grade, so I decided to run an experiment.

The first prompt I assigned is one that will, very likely, appear in some form or another in one of my classes next semester: “assess the causes underlying the collapse of the Roman Republic and identify the most important factor.” I am quite confident in assigning the AI a failing grade.

There were multiple issues with ChatGPT’s submission, but I did not expect the most obvious fault with the essay. The following text appeared near the end of the essay.

Vercingetorix’ victory was, I’m sure, quite a surprise for both him and Julius Caesar. If I had to guess, the AI conflated the fall of the Roman Republic with the fall of the Roman Empire, thus taking the talking points for the Empire and applying them to the names from the time of the Republic. After all, ChatGPT produces text by assembling words without understanding the meaning behind them. Then again, this conflation also appears in any number of think-pieces about the United States as Rome, too.

But beyond this particular howler, the produced text has several critical issues.

For one, “Internal conflict, economic troubles, and military defeats” are exceptionally broad categories each of which could make for a direction to take the paper, but together they become so generic as to obscure any attempt at a thesis. “It was complex” is a general truism about the past, not a satisfactory argument.

For another, the essay lacks adequate citations. In the first attempt, the AI produced only two “citations,” both listed at the end of the paper. As I tell my students, listing sources at the end isn’t the same thing as citing where you are getting the information. Upon some revision, the AI did manage to provide some in-text citations, but not nearly enough and not from anything I would have assigned for the class.

A second test, using a prompt I did assign based on Rudyard Kipling’s The White Man’s Burden, produced similarly egregious results. The essay had an uninspired, but a mostly adequate thesis, at least as a starting point, but then proceeded to use three secondary sources, none of which existed in the format that they were cited. Unless the substantial C.V. of the well-published scholar Sarah C. Chambers is missing a publication on a topic outside her central areas of research, she hasn’t argued what the paper claims she did.

A third test, about Hellenistic Judea, cited an irrelevant section of 1 Maccabees and a chapter in the Cambridge History of Judaism, albeit about Qumram and neither from the right volume nor with the right information for the citation. You get the idea.

None of these papers would have received a passing grade from me based on citations alone even before I switched to a specifications grading model. And that is before considering that the AI does even worse with metacognition, for obvious reasons.

In fact, if a student were to provide a quality essay produced by ChatGPT that was accurate, had a good thesis, and was properly cited, and then explained the process by which they produced the essay in their metacognitive component, I would give that student an A in a normal scheme or the highest marks in my specs system. Not only would such a task be quite hard given the current state of AI, but it would also require the student to know my course material well enough to identify any potential inaccuracies and have the attention to detail to make sure that the citations were correct, to say nothing of demonstrating the engagement through their reflection. I don’t mind students using tools except when those tools become crutches that get in the way of learning.

In a similar vein, I have no problem with students using citation generators except that most don’t realize that you shouldn’t put blind faith in the generator. You have to know both the citation style and the type of source you are citing well enough to edit whatever it gives you, which itself demonstrates your knowledge.

More inventive teachers than I have been suggesting creative approaches to integrating ChatGPT into the classroom as a producer of counterpoints or by giving students opportunities to critique its output, not unlike the exercise I did above. I have also seen the suggestion that it could be valuable for synthesizing complex ideas into digestible format, though this use I think loses something by treating a complex text as though it has only one possible meaning. It also produces a reasonable facsimile of discussion questions, though it struggles to answer them in a meaningful way.

I might dabble with some of these ideas, but I also find myself inclined to take my classes back to the basics. Not a return to timed, in-class tests, but doubling down on simple, basic ideas like opening student ideas to big, open-ended questions, carefully reading sources (especially primary sources) and talking about what they have to say, and how to articulate an interpretation of the past based on those sources–all the while being up front with the students about the purpose behind these assignments.

My lack of concern about ChatGPT at this point might reflect how far from the norm my assessment has strayed. I suspect that when people refer to “the college essay,” they’re thinking of the one-off, minimally-sourced essay that rewards superficial proficiency of the sort that I grew frustrated with. The type of assignment that favors expedience over process. In this sense, I find myself aligned with commentators who suggest that this disruption should be treated as an opportunity rather than an existential threat. To echo the title from a recent post at John Warner’s SubStack, “ChatGPT can’t kill anything worth preserving.”

Weekly Varia no. 6, 12/24/22

One of two things happens when I submit grades at the end of the semester. Sometimes, words start flowing, as though they have been building up behind a dam of grading that has now opened its sluice gate. Other times, I emerge from the final push in a fog that takes several days to dissipate. The harder the semester, the higher the odds of the second outcome.

This was an exceedingly difficult semester for me and its conclusion coincided with a storm front that brought both ice and snow ahead of a holiday weekend, all of which made settling in for a few days of inactivity an attractive proposition. I’ve relished how much time I’ve been able to spend reading the past few days—in addition to the lengthy round up below, I’m on my third novel since the end of the semester—and I’m getting back to my usual routine of baking bread (sweet treats can wait until there is less candy in the house). I suppose that this is how holidays are supposed to go. There will be time to return to more substantive posts next week and in the new year.

Merry Christmas and Happy Chanukah, since the pairing is actually appropriate this year.

This week’s varia:

  • This was a neat story about how John Gompers repatriated a number of antiquities that had been acquired by his grandmother, the Dutch archaeologist Gisela Schneider-Herrmann, and were now sitting in his mother’s garage. He started by Googling “How do you repatriate antiquities?” If a random citizen can do it, then surely so can major institutions since in his insistence that objects belong in museums, Dr. Jones leaves out a critical piece of information: where that museum is located.
  • Staying on the theme of repatriation, Germany has returned 22 of the Benin Bronzes to Nigeria (BBC). These are some of my favorite objects from Africa, but the overwhelming majority of them were looted by European colonizers, removed from the walls of buildings where they told the history of the people, and taken European and American museums. This is a good start.
  • A beautiful necklace from 7th century CE Britain has been discovered. I grimaced at the use of “Anglo-Saxon” in the article, but the artifact itself is spectacular (Washington Post).
  • New Maya settlements have been discovered in Guatemala. Ignore the headline: these were previously unknown settlements, but not a lost civilization. The real story here is that LiDAR is so cool.
  • I love Higher Education. It isn’t Loving me Back.” Continuing with the theme from last week, Hannah Leffingwell writes in Jacobin about the New School Strike and the cultish atmosphere of academia. I particularly like how she describes her realization that a favorite professor from undergrad was leaving because her contract was up: “I was too young and naïve to understand what she was up against: a system that demanded her full and unwavering commitment to “the profession” while offering only temporary, part-time work in return — or, if she was lucky, a grueling tenure-track position in a state where she had no family or friends and probably didn’t want to live.” I often fear that pulling the curtain back with students will only lead to more disillusion, but I also think that students deserve to know what is happening at the institutions where they are studying.
  • An interesting piece about peer review by Adam Mastroianni at his Substack. His argument is that “peer review” in the sciences, which developed as a means to prove to funding bodies that the experiments being run were worthwhile, offers at best a marginal benefit to the actual product. More frequently, he argues, it both fails to catch serious flaws and inhibits potentially valuable research. Coming from a field that straddles the humanities and social sciences, I am sympathetic to some of the frustrations with peer review, especially when it is used as a means of gate-keeping, but ditching peer review isn’t going to bring back great discoveries. Moreover, by the end of the piece, Mastroianni acknowledges the value of receiving feedback with an anecdote about a recent paper he published online at his site, making this a critique of the specific peer review apparatus and the rhythms of academic work.
  • This week in their new newsletter Modern Medieval, Matt Gabriele and David Perry, authors of The Bright Ages, write about the shallow “medievalism” of the architectural trend “Castlecore.”
  • Kelly Baker, in her newsletter Cold Takes writes about the existential crisis of being a writer who didn’t write for most of a year. I adore Baker’s memoir Grace Period, which is a deeply-moving accounting of her falling out of academia. I’m glad that she seems to have found her words again.
  • At The Conversation, Casey Fiesler offers perspective on the migration away from Twitter as compared with previous platforms. The short version: no platform will replicate Twitter, but the communities that form in one place tend to be resilient as members find themselves in other spaces.
  • From The Washington Post, an article with the title “The crisis of student mental health is much vaster than we realize.” Speaking as a teacher at the college level, yup. However, I always get a little bit leery about articles that center mental health services as the solution. They’re important, no doubt, but too often I’ve seen the availability of those services as either as a crutch, or their absence as an excuse, to avoid confronting larger systemic causes of the mental health problem.
  • A long read in Pro Publica, Lynzy Billing reports on the so-called Zero Units, Afghan forces trained and supported by the CIA. These units conducted night time raids in Afghan villages under the pretense of hunting militia leaders, a practice that carried over from the Vietnam War and with the predictable results of hundreds of civilian casualties. She quotes a US army ranger succinctly identifying the core problem with the US strategy in the country: “You go on night raids, make more enemies, then you gotta go on more night raids for the more enemies you now have to kill.”
  • Greece is preparing to expand its border wall with Turkey in 2023 as a deterrent to migrants. Both Greece and Turkey have been playing politics with migrants for a number of years now and it is killing people.
  • A police chief in small town Iowa has been charged with lying to the ATF to acquire fully-automatic machine guns, some of which he resold. At least the ATF denied the transfer of a minigun that is usually mounted on helicopters (the department has three members an no helicopter).
  • George Santos, Republican congressman-elect from New York, has come under scrutiny for having lied about his biography during the campaign, including both his education and work history. The latest fiction seems to be his family history, which, he claims, includes Jewish family members that fled from Ukraine to Belgium, survived the Holocaust, and then ended up in Brazil. Except that there is no evidence of this heritage (CNN).
  • From the Huffington Post, Chuck Schumer seems to be trying to run out the clock on a (moderate) anti-trust bill targeting online monopolies. This is why we can’t have nice things.
  • In Slate, David Zipper highlights the problems with CLEAR, a private company that is empowered to accept what amount to bribes in data and money to skip the TSA line.
  • A new report indicates dangerous levels of Cadmium and other heavy metals in dark chocolate.
  • A piece at CNN Business talks about changing norms around tipping three years into the pandemic: basically, it is as it has been. American tipping culture sucks because it foists the costs of workers making a living wage onto the consumer. I would rather pay a bit more and have employers pay a living wage.
  • I’m a recent convert to e-books, but I have recently found the reading experience on Kindle Paperwhite both easy and convenient, so I was both interested and disappointed to read this blog post suggesting that Amazon will be phasing out the devices.

Album of the week: Old Bear Mountain, “On the Run”

Now reading: Anthony Doerr, Cloud Cuckoo Land; Michael J. Decker, The Sasanian Empire at War

My menorah on night 4

What Is Making Me Happy: Pizza TV

Hi there. I have a bunch of more substantive posts in the works, but I took a beating this semester and it is the Friday before Christmas, so I have decided to take it easy for a couple of days. Enjoy this TV recommendation that I’ve been meeting to put up for a few weeks. I have a Weekly Varia post that will go live tomorrow morning and I expect to be back next week with more substantive thoughts on books, pedagogy, and my usual smattering of other topics.

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: Pizza TV

I wrote about the Great British Baking Show back in 2015 and my interest in both food and food TV has only grown in the seven years since. In the past two years alone, I have written favorably about the scripted show The Bear, as well as Top Chef (three times, actually), and Best Baker in America. My tastes in these shows usually align with the food I like to make and eat, so it should perhaps be of no surprise that I greatly enjoyed two very different shows, both about pizza.

Best in Dough is a deeply silly show on Hulu. The first season, which debuted back in September, consists of ten episodes hosted by Wells Adams and judged by Daniele D’Uditi and a second chair filled by Millie Peartree, Eunji Kim, and Bryan Ford.

Each episode brings on three contestants (or sometimes teams) to compete in two challenges.

The first challenge flips the contest on its head, usually forcing them to cook something pizza adjacent, but not actually pizza and often something that prevents them from using their dough. The winner gets either an advantage on the final challenge or a prize. Since a ten minute advantage isn’t that substantial when you already have your dough, just choose the prize.

The second challenge has the contestants bake their pizza using dough they brought and any one of the variety of pizza ovens on set. This round of competition is judged by the three judges and a panel of “pizza lovers” whose decision in an adjacent room counts both as one vote and the tiebreaker since, as Wells Adams cornily repeats every episode, “pizza is for the people.” The winner walks away with $10,000

What makes Best in Dough so silly, though, is that each episode has a gimmick that feeds into the challenges. The first, which was by far my favorite, was the “Nonna” episode featuring three Italian-American grandmothers. Few shows have made me laugh as hard as I did at an old Italian woman declaring after she steals someone’s tomato “I do what I want to, all the time.” The other themes were often cheesier, like social media influencers or fine dining pizzas, but I enjoyed the lighthearted competition.

The other show, Chef’s Table: Pizza, is about as far to the other end of the spectrum as you can get. I liked the original Chef’s Table that debuted on Netflix back in 2015 well enough, but it didn’t click with me in the same way that some other cooking shows have. However, I recently returned to the project with its new pizza series that also debuted in September. Without doing anything more than looking at release dates, this seems to be a continuation of what the producers did back in 2020 when they applied the Chef’s Table apparatus and aesthetic to BBQ, which serves to both elevate a type of cuisine not usually considered fine dining.

This season offers a spotlight to six notable pizza chefs from around the world: Chris Bianco in Arizona, Gabriele Bonci in Rome, Ann Kim in Minneapolis, Franco Pepe outside of Naples, Yoshihiro Imai in Kyoto, and Sarah Minnick in Portland, Oregon.

At some level, the Chef’s Table formula makes each story interchangeable. Pizza was usually not their calling, even when they were restaurant industry veterans, until it was. Each suffered some sort of professional or personal setback that caused them to suffer for their pizza craft. Each is deeply moved by where the ingredients come from. Each has food critics eager to declare that theirs is the best pizza in the world. By the end of the series, in fact, I would start an episode asking myself when and where the obstacles would come from—would this one be a disapproving parents or a destructive industry work wreaking havoc with a marriage?

Chef’s Table, like many other types of food TV, thrives on the idea of food as a story. The viewer cannot eat the food, so you rely on video of dripping fat (which is parodied to great effect on the finale of Parks and Rec) and sizzling grills, or on Tony Bourdain slurping a bowl of noodles while groaning “that’s good.” Where they thrive, then, is the story of how things get made, both in the historical sense and in seeing the transformation from raw ingredient to final product.

In this sense, I found pizza to be a curious match for the form. The personal history was there, of course, and the show features loving shots of tomatoes and greens, and of Chris Bianco making mozzarella, but it also often struck me that the dough itself was treated as an afterthought in most episodes. There were of course shots of dough being balled up or stretched, but only in Sarah Minnick’s episode where part of her story involved opening a pizza restaurant without really having made pizza before, did I find the dough itself central and, even then, the show focused its praise on her unusual toppings. I completely understand that this show is more about creating an aesthetic than about the process itself and also that watching dough rise does not make for the most compelling television (I’ve even written a tongue-in-cheek story about this), but, as a bread obsessive, I’d love to see a show like this turn the camera in that direction.

And yet, despite these critiques, I thoroughly enjoyed this series. Perhaps the highest praise I can give it is that upon watching Gabriele Bonci’s episode about pizza al’taglio (Roman street pizza), I found myself thumbing through my baking books to see if I could replicate it at home. The answer is that yes, I can, and it is delicious.

Pizza al’taglio with tomatoes, tomato sauce, and a balsamic reductionz

Weekly Varia no. 5, 12/17/22

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

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

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

This week’s varia:

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

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

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

Phantom Time

A little more than a decade ago in graduate school I took a Roman history seminar where the professor assigned a (then) recently published book, Holy Warriors: Islam and the Demise of Classical Civilization by the pseudonymous John J. O’Neill, named after an FBI agent killed in the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in 2001. There is an old adage that when you read the work of historians, you should listen for the sound of the bees buzzing in their bonnet, and, here, the name alone suggests that one ought to don a bee suit.

[O’Neill]’s argument is two-fold. First, he argues, modern historians have inappropriately discarded the work of Belgian historian Henri Pirenne, who, in the 1920s had articulated a thesis that the Muslim conquests had transformed the Mediterranean and formally ended the Roman system. Far from preserving the Classical inheritance, Muslim society was inherently antithetical to it—and inherently violent. At several points he asserts that religious change in the Indian subcontinent was driven by the need to confront the onslaught:

“One long-term consequence of these invasion was the virtual disappearance of the hitherto prevalent and pacifist Buddhism and its replacement by a form of Hinduism…” (146)

However, he also picks up on the apparent absence of securely-dated archaeological material for the early Middle Ages and thus argues that contradictions found by Pirenne in Mohammed and Charlemagne is evidence that the so-called “Dark Ages” were not real, because those centuries never existed. They were an invention of the German Ottonian dynasty.

Now, professors assign books for all sorts of reasons and seminars frequently have a more productive discussion when there is disagreement. However, I have never seen a seminar so vehement and unanimous in its fundamental rejection of an assigned book. The theme of the course was sociological concepts like complex societies in late antique history and, in this respect, Holy Warriors might have been a productive vehicle for talking about Pirenne and Roman systems if framed as such and paired with some supplemental readings, but I suspect, based on the professor’s response to the class’s repudiation of the book overall, that his purpose in assigning the text wasn’t so much Pirenne as Phantom Time.

The back portion of Holy Warriors where [O’Neill] argues that Charlemagne never existed is based on the Phantom Time Hypothesis first espoused by Heribert Illig in 1991. While challenges to establishing a secure chronology for this period exist, this hypothesis is, fundamentally, based on conspiratorial thinking that simply rejects out of hand any evidence that contradicts it.

Nor is Phantom Time an isolate.

The Russian mathematician Anatoly Fomenko, for instance, espouses a “New Chronology” wherein there is a conspiracy to deny the Russian Horde (a slav-turk empire, in his estimation) its rightful place in history. Fomenko claims that the history that we know it is an artificial creation based on real events all of which take place since the year 800 CE. Thus, he argues, primary model of Jesus being the Byzantine Emperor Andronikos I Komnenos who (can I say “he claims,” again? I think I should) was born in Crimea on December 25, 1152 and was crucified on the Bosporus on March 20, 1185. Columbus is a Cossack who is also Noah.

Fomenko’s thesis is entirely absurd, and based particularly on statistical correlation between events and ruler lists. But it is also extremely popular in Russia, where it dovetails with other types of ultranationalist fictions, and was, for a time, promoted by Garry Kasparov, who thought it explained why science, art, and culture seemed to die until the Renaissance.

Which brings me to Donna Dickens, a social media “historian” who has gained some traction with assertions that ancient Rome is a fiction created by the Catholic Church to synthesize and co-opt indigenous cultures from around Europe and the Mediterranean. Rome of course synethesized and co-opted cultures from around its empire—that is one of the most interesting things about Roman History—but it also existed.

When confronted with evidence to the contrary, Dickens responds by demanding to see hard scientific evidence to verify the dates. As though proponents of theories of this sort don’t dismiss scientific evidence that runs counter to their claims as inadequate, too. In this case, Dickens rejects any evidence based on stone or other materials that cannot be carbon dated.

Anyone familiar with the recent dustup between the supporters of Graham Hancock’s Ancient Apocalypse theories and academic archaeologists has probably seen the allegation of racism levied against pseudo-archaeology. Hancock, for instance, argues that surviving ruins around the world are much older than archaeologists claim and are thus evidence of an early civilization that perished in, wait for it, an ancient apocalypse. The theory explicitly claims that anything sophisticated in indigenous cultures (e.g. agriculture) was introduced by survivors of this ancient flood, which is an echo of how European colonizers articulated their relationship to the people they met the world over.

I am not an archaeologist by trade or training, but as an interested outside from an adjacent field, I think that Bill Caraher has been raising important points about what attracts people to pseudo-archaeology in the contemporary moment. In another post, he notes that pseudo-archaeology itself isn’t any more or less colonial or racist than regular archaeology, while an indigenous understanding the world can be anti-scientific in ways that also put them at odds with contemporary archaeology. The problem with Hancock, then, is that he leverages the “documentary” format to espouse a theory that reinforces white supremacy rather than the pseudo-archaeology ipso facto.

What I find particularly interesting about Dickens is that she inverts the usual paradigm in a way that echoes the discourse about pseudo-archaeology broadly.

Fomenko, Illig, and the adherents of each theory, broadly speaking, adopt positions that draw people toward the political right. Fomenko’s theory is wildly popular in Russia, while Illig’s appeals to anyone who wants to excise Islam from a complex history of the early Middle Ages.

Dickens, by contrast, is explicitly not right wing. She sees herself as a defender of indigenous cultures in the United States and elsewhere against the predations of the Catholic church and an opponent of a discipline (Classics) concocted by “Victorian eugenicists.” While there are numerous issues with her theory, I have little interest in “debunking” Dickens and less in defending Victorian classicists. Rather, I am fascinated by the phenomenon.

In the first of the blog posts linked to above, Caraher identifies contributing factors to pseudo-archaeology that are equally relevant to other sorts of alternative histories. The whole post is worth reading, but I was particularly struck by two points:

First, Caraher makes an astute observation about the present moment and its relationship to both the past and the future.

In Search of Foreclosed Pasts. One thing that I’ve started to think about over the last week or so is how alternative views of the past tend to emerge at points where there is both perceived discontinuity in the past (i.e. the end of the ancient world, apocalypses, vanish civilizations, episodes of collapse, and so on) and in the present. I guess everyone knows this, but for whatever reason it didn’t quite register with me.

I suppose the reason for this is that when we recognize that the past does not necessarily culminate in the present. That is to say, when we come to realize that our past actions as humans have not necessarily produced a sustainable present. In other words, our current historical trajectory, despite the hopes and promises of progress, has become dead end. Climate change, environmental degradation, social fracturing, and resurgent totalitarianism has revealed the bankruptcy of modernity, scientific thinking, capitalism, and narratives of progress.

As a society, then, we’ve started to look at the past with a growing sense of urgency in an effort to identify a moment when things went wrong. In this context, a renewed openness to new ways (both good and bad) at engaging with the plurality of human experiences has made it possible to explore pasts foreclosed by the hegemonic power of modernity.

I would add to his observation that this historical moment is one when so many traditional master narratives are rightfully being challenged. Mostly, this is a good thing. In my American history survey, for instance, I try to offer students complexity and context that they generally missed in their high school history courses. In fact, I explicitly leverage the fact that they are familiar in broad strokes with the master narrative as something that I can play off in class discussions. Mostly this works, and I often will receive comments about how the course deepened their understanding of US history. However, some few go further to seeing the machinations of a conspiracy at work in every corner of history. I have noticed the ranks of the later group growing in recent years, in part perhaps because of conspiratorial thinking like Q-Anon, but also because so many books that challenge the master narrative are marketed as a secret history.

Second, at the end of the post, Caraher mentions “too much science.” I have been known to joke in some classes that the work that scientists do might as well be magic. I immediately follow this up with deep appreciation and and exploration of what that magic science can reveal about the past, but there is a kernel of truth behind my declaration. I know generally what is going on with a lot of science, but so much of it remains a mystery to me. I think that in a world where science and magic are virtually indistinguishable to a lot of people, there is a temptation to reject it all in favor of what your eyes are seeing or your gut is thinking, no matter how superficial or nonsensical that observation may be. I am reminded in this about how, about five years ago, there was a spate of prominent flat-earthers whose belief was based on nothing more than how Kansas [vel sim.] is flat for as far as the eye can see or, as in the case of Kyrie Irving, that educators are hiding the real truth.

Another contributing factor, I think, is the way in which we interact with texts. I certainly count myself among the number of professors who cringe when my students refer to a history book as a novel. In part, that particular error is like nails on a chalkboard to me, but I think it is also symptomatic of an inability to distinguish between different types of sources and media—something I have been thinking a lot about how to address in my teaching recently because I’m coming to believe that it is an essential part of sifting through the mountain of information at our fingertips online. Some of the challenge is, as Caraher notes, an issue of genre-bending, but I think it is a more fundamental challenge even without the added layer of one form mimicking another.

Nor is it just an issue for students. Years ago at a party I was talking with several people who I think were MIT engineering post-doctoral researchers. When they found out that I was a historian they wanted to know what I thought about Game of Thrones. I was happy to give my thoughts—I had only been reading the novels since middle school—but at some point in the conversation it occurred to me that they were asking my thoughts on its historical accuracy, not as an analysis of the world-building, but in whether this world invented by a single author was real.

When Dickens compares the history of Ancient Rome to Tolkien’s Silmarillion, I think back to this conversation. When every text is offered the same weight, it is altogether too easy to pick and choose the ones that suit the story you want to tell—to say nothing of how it erases the amazing work down by paleographers whose work creates every standard Greek or Latin text that we have from multiple competing manuscript traditions.

This post has gone on long enough, but I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that these sorts of fictions are ripe for satire. In October 2010, The Onion published what remains one of my all-time favorites: “Historians Admit to Inventing Ancient Greeks.” The article “reports” on a press conference in which historians invent that everything about Greece is pure invention, and I love it because it is both extremely silly and touches on ways in which history is invented, albeit in the sense that making meaning out of the past is a matter of interpretation. The Onion article might be satire, but these sorts of conspiracies are only a joke until they very much aren’t.