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The Cruelest Phase

I keep coming back to the same thought over the past few weeks: more than two years into a global pandemic that has likely killed more than a million people in the United States and three million worldwide, we are just now entering the cruelest phase of the this health crisis.

Now, a disclaimer. I am a historian, and an ancient historian at that. I don’t study public policy or statistics or medicine, and my observations here are supremely anecdotal. That said…

As hard as the first year of the pandemic was for many people—and it was hard—I remember at least a superficial sense of collective unity. People played politics with PPE, many places resisted installing mask mandates, and too many people lost their jobs, but amid the chaos of uncertainty there was an acknowledgement in the collective wisdom about what needed to be done and which people were already straining against the impossible.

The second year meant settling into something akin to a new normal and an optimistic sigh of relief at the flood of vaccines making their way into people’s arms. After all, the US responds to crises best when they can be solved by the blunt instrument of mass production.

But here at the start of year three, I am worried. The vaccination levels have long-since flattened and the rates of boosters lagged precipitously behind despite the appearance of two highly-contagious variants. At the same time, movements against masks and vaccines gained traction under the rhetoric of freedom. Organizations used the lulls between waves and availability of vaccines to drop remaining mitigation measures. Congress stripped Covid funding altogether from the latest funding bill. People have gradually let their guard down as they have watched their peers do so with seemingly no ill-effects.

Back in December 2020 I wrote:

COVID didn’t so much create problems as lay bare the fundamental structures of a society where public infrastructure (let alone any pretense of a social safety net) has been dismantled and sold for parts.

A year and a half later, things are worse. The changes put in place proved temporary accommodations rather than substantive reforms and the people who have been holding entire fields like, say, healthcare and education together are running on fumes. In the case of education, a field notorious for overwork and low pay, the CRT panic has made the job more challenging even beyond Covid and one recent survey found that 55% of respondents are now looking at leaving the field sooner than they had planned, up from 37% in the same survey at the start of the school year. The result is critical shortages in healthcare workers and teachers which puts more burden on those who remain and thus creating the potential for cascading failures.

A new variant (Omicron BA.2; I see we broke pattern and are delaying the arrival omega) is the dominant strain of Covid in the United States and your trend-line-of-choice is heading in the wrong direction, be it positive tests, waste water testing, or Yankee Candle reviews. Despite mendacious bloviating that the pandemic is over, it was a matter of when, not if, the next wave hit. This time, though, there isn’t even the pretense of mitigation measures, let alone federal funding for testing and treatment. And just wait until health insurers determine that Covid is a pre-existing condition.

The point here is not that everything is absolutely terrible, at least about this. I am vaccinated, boosted, and live in a region with relatively low case rates. However, I also worry that we are at a point where these same factors that will facilitate the spread of the next wave are going to leave the people who contract the virus even more alone when it comes to dealing with the consequences. I hope I’m wrong.

Specifications Grading: Restoring Rigor, Motivating Students, and Saving Faculty Time

I don’t like grades.

As a student, I oscillated between taking anything but superlative grades as a sign of my own failure and being utterly indifferent to grades as a secondary consideration to learning the material. Either way, grades were an imperfect motivator.

As a teacher, I am even more ambivalent about grades, which I see as something I am required to do in order to rank my students. I am always prouder of a student who struggles and reaches a breakthrough than the genius who coasts through the course, even though the latter receives the higher grade. My own experience as a student informs how I structure my courses, leading to policies that encourage regular engagement, choice in how to complete assignments, emphasis on the process over product, and often opportunities for revision. Each of these course policies marked an improvement, but they all retained the thing that I was in many ways least satisfied with: grades.

A few weeks ago a faculty development seminar introduced me to the broad strokes of Specifications Grading and since it seemed like the direction I have been moving my courses, I spent nearly an hour after the event jotting down preliminary notes for what that might look like in my course. At the end of that day I was intrigued, but needed more information. Over my spring break, therefore, I read Linda Nilson’s Specifications Grading: Restoring Rigor, Motivating Students, and Saving Faculty Time (Stylus 2014).

Broadly speaking, Specifications (Specs) Grading is a variation on a pass-fail, contract grading, and competency-based outcomes that ties course assignments to specific course objectives. This model, Nilson argues, has three major benefits. First, setting a high bar for “acceptable” work but giving opportunities for revision imposes rigor without making the professor into a jerk. Second, demystifying the grading process and offering flexibility reduces stress on the students. Third, eliminating partial credit saves time. Some model systems presented a fourth potential benefit of allowing teachers to give more of their limited attention to those students aiming for the higher grades.

In addition to an argument for its benefits, Specifications Grading serves as a guide to adapt traditional grading models to a specs system across two broad categories: outcomes and assignments/rubrics.

If you’re anything like me, you course outcomes won’t work for specs grading. Nobody ever really taught me how to write objectives so what I have in my syllabuses focus on what the students will receive. The conceit of an objective might be well-intentioned, but if the students can’t demonstrate what they are learning through the assessments, then it won’t work. Often this just means a subtle, but significant shift:

  • Students will gain a broad understanding of US history since 1877.
  • Students will be able to identify the major events of American history since 1877

Each of these objectives would then be demonstrated specifically by one or more course assessments. In Nilson’s model, some of these course objectives would correspond to basic, minimal standards like the one listed above. Students who achieve proficiency at those lower-level objectives would be able to pass the course with a C, while students at aiming for a B or A would have to also demonstrate proficiency at objectives that involve more complex skills.

The second part step involves developing detailed one level rubrics that explain everything that the assignment must have to be accounted “proficient.” Now there will be some variability in what that standard should be, but Nilson recommends building the rubric from everything you would expect to see in a roughly B+ assignment. When it comes time to grade the assignments, then, the assessment becomes a binary yes/no, along with some comments that might be used if, as Nilson recommends, the students get the chance for revision.

I have traditionally had an antagonistic relationship with most rubrics because most of the rubrics I have been required to use were a particularly poor match for how I wanted to grade such that someone who received 9/12 on the rubric was solidly in the B+ range according to how I grade. However, I found myself coming around to this model of rubric because it removes the splitting hairs and partial credits in favor of either showing that the students achieved proficiency or did not. The grade translation, in turn, does not come from an individual rubric but from how many assignments in which the student achieved proficiency.

and have been jotting down notes on how I can transform my existing courses with minimal disruption to anything but how I grade.

For my general education classes the assignments might look like (based on a syllabus for this semester):

To receive a “C” in this course (linked to the lowest tier of objectives)

  • Participation [in various forms] of 75%
  • Objective quiz score of 75% [I allow retakes and drop a quiz score, so I have exactly 2 students who are not clearing this bar right now]
  • Journals 10/15
  • Papers 5/5 completed, but not to “proficiency” with historical essay writing

To receive an “A”:

  • Participation of 95%
  • Objective quiz score of 90%
  • Journals 13/15
  • Papers 5/5 to proficiency
  • Completing a final project

The “B” range would obviously fall somewhere in between these two levels, with a “D” a little below “C.” The numbers might be off a little bit, but I would calibrate them based on what my final grade sheet looks like.

For my upper-level classes that are writing intensive and where the students complete three longer essays, a “C” may require revising one of the three essays to proficiency, “B” requires two, and “A” all three. For all of these classes, I am also toying with the idea of creating a list of “recommended” books for the course and allowing any student the opportunity to choose and review one of these books in place of one “proficient” paper—with guidelines for what constitutes an acceptable review, of course.

Specifications Grading also introduced me to a different paradigm to the student-teacher relationship. Students are not customers, Nilson argues, but clients. Specifications grading takes into account that different clients are going to aim at different outcomes. It makes the expectations clear for each tier and lets the client choose which package to pursue. In Nilson’s telling, this allows the teacher to dedicate the most energy to the students most invested in the course by dint of aiming at the top tiers.

This model is tempting given how frustrating it can be to expend disproportionate amounts of energy on reticent students, but it was also the point that left me most uncomfortable with specs grading. One common proposal in the sample syllabuses Nilson provides is setting not only different levels of proficiency, but also different assignments for the different tiers. I incorporated that into one of my sketches above for the final projects, but even there I have been wondering whether the non-project option ought to require an objective test passed at a certain proficiency since under specs grading—something I’m not wild about given that 1) I am skeptical about the value of such objective tests, period; 2) writing such a test would hand back some of the savings in time; 3) keeping track of who is doing what sounds like a lot of bookkeeping.

However, my discomfort with the different assignments for different levels stems is also philosophical. That is, it feels to me like saving time and becoming a better teacher for the invested students involves allowing students aiming at a “C” to fall behind. The counter, I think, is that this is in fact the point. The way I imagine this grading scheme working in my classes, those students would still be expected to attend and complete assignments for the whole semester and gives anyone who wants it the opportunity to achieve every objective. But if students are not interested, then it empowers them to put their energies elsewhere (courses, hobbies, work, whatever). In other words, the client model simple acknowledges the reality that teachers cannot force people to learn anything they don’t want to learn, particularly at the busiest time of the semester.

I have been thinking about the process as setting two different benchmarks: the “C” level for minimum objectives and the level of proficiency for complex objectives where “A” reaches it in every category and “B” reaches it in some. Specs grading dispenses with the murky ambiguity of partial credit where the “C” student allegedly achieved 75% of a given course objective. Thus, it isn’t the “C” student doing less work so much as they hit one set of objectives, while I am vouching that the “A” student has completed more and more complex work that allows me to certify that they have reached proficiency in the others—I can hope the “C” student developed in these other categories, but the grade makes no claim that they did so.

At this point I am ready to dive into specs grading head first, but I’m also sure that whatever system I come up with in the abstract will require adjustment once I get into a semester. So here’s the question for those of you who have used specs grading: what should I be on the lookout for? Is there anything I’m missing?

ΔΔΔ

I keep a list of pedagogy resources along with links to write-ups I have done on this blog.

Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America

Black and white image of the cover of Kathleen Belew’s Bring the War Home.

On January 6, 2021, a crowd people stormed the US Capitol Building in order to stop the certification of the electoral votes that made Joe Biden president. This was the result of actions meant to undermine faith in election and polarization heightened by the present media ecosystem, but it was also the culmination of decades of growing extremism among white nationalist and anti-government militia movements. That growth is the subject of Kathleen Belew’s Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America.

While there has been a pronounced strain of separatism in the United States as long as there has been a United States, Belew identifies the modern iteration in the resolution to the Vietnam War in the 1970s. White power was at the heart of the militia movement from its inception, but she argues that the perceived betrayal in Vietnam prompted a very specific metastasis beyond bog-standard racism. It prompted people like Louis Beam to form militia groups with the stated intent of continuing the war. Naturally, they found common cause with groups like the Knights of the Ku Klux Klax that David Duke founded in 1975.

In these early ears, the militia movement claimed to be fighting against insidious forces and on behalf of the United States. They were soldiers taking the war into their own hands. However, Belew traces how this resentment and frustration transformed over the course of the 1980s until their orientation had turned 180 degrees. By the start of the 1990s militia groups operating around the country–and not merely at places like Ruby Ridge–saw themselves as soldiers in a war on behalf of white people against the United States, which they referred to as the Zionist Occupation Government. She concludes with a chapter on Timothy McVeigh and his terrorist attack in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995, though that incident clearly did not put an end to the movements Belew documents is documenting.

At this point, I feel like I need to offer a caveat. I finished Bring the War Home a month ago and while I take copious notes on the books I read for “work” take only haphazard notes on books that I read for “fun.” This book technically falls in the latter category even though parts of it will undoubtedly make its way into my US history classes. I meant to write this post within a day or two of finishing the book, but it turns out that writing here is a lower priority than, say, my classes or work on academic publications. All of this is to say that the following analysis is going to be more a reflection on what I saw as a couple of key themes and less an actual review.

The first thing that stood out to me in Bring the War Home was how Belew traces multiple loosely-connected organizations joined by a common sense of purpose and sometimes, marriage. The various groups saw themselves as part of the same conflict and Belew shows how they used the early internet to support one another, but the absence of a hierarchy meant that quashing one did nothing to slow the spread of the movement. In fact, efforts by the federal government to address the militia movement in places like Ruby Ridge only galvanized other cells and sympathizers. This part of the book sometimes meant trying to keep track of a web of names, but it effectively highlighted the challenge of addressing the militia movement.

Second, perhaps the most striking chapter in Bring the War Home was “Race War and White Women.” In this chapter, Belew shows how white women were of central importance to the militia movement. That is, they claimed to be defending the virtue of vulnerable white women who, in turn, were expected to bear white children. These vulnerable white women were both an abstract ideal, rather like love interests in D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, and people who played a concrete role in spreading the militia ideas. In the case of a the Fort Smith sedition trial in 1988 that ended with the jury rendering a not guilty verdict, two of the white women on the jury subsequently entered into public relationships with defendants.

(One of the key witnesses in that trial went on to murder three people at Jewish centers in Overland Park, Kansas in 2014.)

Bring the War Home is a terrifying book in many ways. It brings into focus a strain of extremism in the United States that has been steadily growing in prominence in the past few decades. This movement coalesced around racism, anti-semitism, and christian identitarianism, took advantage of new forms of media new media, and, as Belew put it on the first anniversary of January 6, ruthlessly seizes any opportunity. And yet, while these militia movements have themselves shed blood in their war against ZOG and fully intend to do so again, I can’t help but feel that their presence reveals a bigger and more insidious danger. The militia movement emerged from a specific knot of beliefs, but its growth and evolution stems in no small part from how many people not directly affiliated with any tentacle of the movement express sympathy for their positions. That is, the militia movement won’t win its war through force of arms, but through a steady campaign of radicalization that plays on preexisting prejudices. The fact that their ideas can be found elevated into nearly every level of government demonstrates that it is working.

ΔΔΔ

Crunch time on getting my book together meant giving almost all of my spare time to that, but I have still been reading a little bit every day because it helps me feel normal. Since my last one of these posts I finished Trevor Strunk’s Story Mode, a literary analysis of video games that had some interesting things to say about the evolution of games and Sofia Samatar’s A Stranger in Olondria, which had a gift for rich descriptions of place and with a clever story structure but that I ultimately found disappointing in terms of the characters and how the plot was written, James S.A. Corey’s Nemesis Games (Expanse, book 5), and S.A. Chakraborty’s Empire of Gold. I intend to write about the latter two series at some point. Currently, I am reading Tasha Suri’s The Jasmine Throne.

February Reading List

Back in January I set an ambitious reading goal for 2022, one article read per working day, and resolved to do a monthly wrap-up for accountability. I am generally happy with the returns even though some busyness in my schedule at the end of February caused me to fall a little bit short this month as well.

Without further ado, here is the list and a handful of honorable mentions for the favorite things I read.

Honorable Mentions

  • David Lewis, “Near Eastern Slaves in Classical Attica and the Slave Trade with Persian Territories,” Classical Quarterly 61 (2011): 91–113
  • James Roy, “The Son of Pharnabazos and Parapita, A Persian Competing in the Olympic Games: Xenophon Hellenica 4.1.39–40,” Classica et Mediaevalia 68 (2020): 119–34
  • Dominique Lenfant, “Eunuchs as the Guardians of Women: Orientalism and Back Projection in Modern Scholarship,” Greek Roman and Byzantine Studies 61 (2021): 456–74

The List

  • Anna Novokhatko, “The Wetted Sponge, the Wretched Rho, and other Greek evidence for Scribal Work,” Glotta 96 (2020): 148–73
  • V.L. Konstantinopoulos, “The Persian Wars and Political Conflicts in Athens,” British Institute of Classical Studies 124 (2013), 63–5
  • Rachel Bruzzone, “Killing the Past in Thucydides’ Plataean Debate,” Classical Philology 110 (2015): 289–300
  • Andrew G. Scott, “Spartan courage and the social function of Plutarch’s Lacaonian apophthegms,” Museum Helveticum 74, no. 1 (2017): 34–53
  • Andrew T. Alwine, “Freedom and Patronage in Athenian Democracy,” Journal of Hellenic Studies 136 (2016): 1–17
  • Christina Skelton, “Greek-Anatolian Language Contact and the Settlement of Pamphylia,” Classical Antiquity 36, no. 1 (2017): 104–29
  • Garrett Ryan, “Building Order,” Classical Antiquity 37, no. 1 (2018): 151–85
  • John O. Hyland, “Contesting Marathon: Billows Krentz, and the Persian Problem,” Classical Philology 106, no. 3 (2011): 265–77 (review article)
  • Richard Rawles, “Lysimeleia (Thucydides 7.52, Theocritus 16.84): What Thucydides Does not Tell us about the Sicilian Expedition,” Journal of Hellenic Studies 135 (2015): 132–46
  • Christian Mann, “Campaign Agones: Towards a Classification of Grek Athletic Competitions,
    Classica et Mediaevalia 68 (2020): 99–117
  • Mait Kõiv, “Greek Rulers and Imperial Powers in Western Anatolia (8th–6th Centuries BC),” Studia Antiqua et Archaeologica 27, no. 2 (2021): 357–72
  • Aynur-Michele-Sara Karatas, “Greek Cults and Their Sacred Laws on Dress Codes,” Classical World 113, no. 2 (2020): 147–70
  • Krzysztof Nawotka, “Seleukos I and the Origin of the Seleukid Dynastic Image,
    Scripta Classical Israelica 36 (2017): 31–43
  • Marloes Deene, “Naturalized Citizens and Social Mobility in Classical Athens: the case of Apollodorus,” Greece and Rome 58, no. 2 (2011): 159–75
  • Benjamin M. Sullivan, “In the Shadow of Phoenicia: North Syria and “Palestinian Syria” in Herodotus,” Journal of Hellenic Studies 138 (2018): 67–79

Previous Months

January

Planning ahead: a Roman history reading list (updated)

A few months ago I posted a reading list for a hypothetical summer grad class designed to introduce teachers or aspiring teachers to recent scholarship in Greek history. The list (archived and updated here) included eight selections for an eight-week class, as well as a few other books that I considered. I am currently scheduled to teach a Roman History course for the first time next year. My comprehensive exams list is a bit dated at this point and while I have not been wholly neglectful of Rome, I should still probably brush up.

My goal for the list is to have recent 8–10 works that provide a cross-section of approaches to Roman (republic and imperial) History that a) catches me up on key approaches; b) does not just offer a narrative history; c) some of which might offer secondary readings that complement the primary sources the students will read.

So far this is the list I have come up with:

  • Guy Maclean Rogers, For the Freedom of Zion (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2021)
  • Andrew B. Gallia, Remembering the Roman Republic (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012)
  • Ian Haynes, Blood of the Provinces (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013)
  • Jared T. Benton,The Bread Makers (New York: Palgrave McMillan, 2020)
  • Robert Knapp, Invisible Romans (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014)
  • Rabun Taylor, Roman Builders: A Study in Architectural Process (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2003)
  • Lindsey A. Mazurek, Isis in a Global Empire (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2022)
  • Dan-el Padilla Peralta, Divine Institutions: Religions and Community in the Middle Roman Republic (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2020)
  • Martijn Icks, The Crimes of Elagabalus (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012)
  • Kathryn Lomas, The Rise of Rome: From the Iron Age to the Punic Wars (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2018)
  • Steven Ellis, The Roman Retail Revolution (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018)

Others considered:

  • Myles Lavan, Slaves to Rome: Paradigms of Empire in Roman Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013)
  • Meghan DiLuzio, A Place at the Altar: Priestesses in Republican Rome (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2016)
  • Kyle Harper, The Fate of Rome (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2018)
  • Christopher Fuhrmann, Policing the Roman Empire: Soldiers, Administration, and Public Order (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014)
  • Barbara M. Levick, Faustina I and II (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014)
  • Anthony Birley, Septimius Severus: The African Empire (New York: Routledge, 1999)

The problem right now for both this list and for thinking about how I want to teach this course is that there is an awful lot of Roman History. I don’t have much on the second or third centuries, and there are a bunch of other imbalances or omissions I will want to address—but I also don’t know what I don’t know. What did I miss?

To this point, I have received the following additional suggestions:

  • Kyle Harper, Slavery in the Late Roman World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011)
  • Michael Kulikowski, The Tragedy of Empire (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2019)
  • Michael Kulikowski, Rome’s Gothic Wars (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008)
  • Valentina Arena, Libertas and the Practice of Politics in the Late Roman Empire (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013)
  • Harriet Flower, Roman Republics (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009)
  • Kim Bowes, Private Worship, Public Values, and Religious Change in Late Antiquity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008)

Do you want to hear me talk about bread?

If you answered “yes,” then I have great news for you. A few months back I recorded an interview about bread in Ancient Greece with Aven McMaster and Mark Sundaram for their podcast The Endless Knot. That episode went live this morning. I haven’t heard the final product yet, but it got an excellent review from Emma Pauly, the person who edited and transcribed the episode.

You can get the episode anywhere you get podcasts or by using this link. Bon appétit!

What is Making Me Happy: Byzantium and Friends

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

This week: Byzantium and Friends

I am a longtime listener to podcasts, so much so that I wrote one of these entries on the topic way back in 2016. I also once suggested that every history program ought to have a student-run semi-regular podcast where members of the department and alumni could talk about their their research. In addition to being outreach for the program, such a podcast would give students multiple types of experience, as producers, as interviewers, and, of course, talking about their own work. This idea came to me too late in my graduate career to put something in action, though, and I have largely resisted the urge to start a podcast of my own both because I don’t have a clear sense of what I would want the project to do and because I haven’t had time.

Several weeks ago I started listening to the Byzantium and Friends podcast hosted by Anthony Kaldellis thanks to a recommendation on Twitter from Matthew Simonton. Four episodes in, I am already prepared to say that his is what I would want it to look like were I to start a Greek history podcast.

The stated goal of the podcast is to make current research in the diversifying field of Late Antique studies accessible a wider audience such as students and teachers.

Each episode features a conversation between Kaldellis and a guest grounded in something that the guest has written, whether a book or an article, but then flows outward. Kaldellis is adept at guiding this discussion, informed by careful and generous readings of their work, as well as his own scholarship, and a curiosity about trends and different methodological approaches in historical study. Since the goal is explanatory and collaborative rather than critical, I find that the discussion transcends the limits of the specific publication and become about the process of doing history. Some of the resonance stems form the broad similarities between ancient history and Late Antiquity, but other parts are universal to the study of the past. This was particularly true in the fourth episode with Kristina Sessa about environmental approaches to ancient history, which I am going to suggest as an assignment for a World History course next fall, but it was also present in the other episodes—with George Demacopoulos about colonialism and post-colonial theory in the Fourth Crusade, Ellen Muehlberger about imagination, and Leonora Neville on gender.

As much as I love the conversations, though, it is the final question that particularly makes me happy. Kaldellis closes the show by asking the guest for two reading recommendations outside their specific field. This is a show about Late Antiquity and Byzantium, but this closing question reinforces how historians bring a wide range of influences to their work and benefit from looking beyond the narrow bounds of their research. Every time he asks this question I think about how I might answer the question. As I write this, I’m still trying to decide.

In short, this is my platonic ideal of an academic podcast and I would love to see this format proliferate. Even if I had time to take on such a project, though, I could only hope to emulate Kaldellis’ erudite and considered skill as a host so while I could could provide a lengthy list of scholars I would excitedly badger to come talk to me about their work, I will save everyone the embarrassment by just pressing play on episode five.

Tenure, contingency, and academic speech, a maunder

A collection of thoughts from my friend Ellie Mackin Roberts caught my attention this morning scrolling through Twitter (not linked because she mentioned she might delete the thread). The higher ed union in the UK is currently on strike over pensions and EMR was reflecting on why she was having a hard time engaging with this strike despite being pro-union. The thrust of the thread was that her position as an hourly employee meant a) that she couldn’t afford to strike; b) that this employment and caring responsibilities largely cuts her off from full time positions, despite being an accomplished and published researcher; and c) that the full time faculty who benefit most from an improved pension scheme have, historically, not shown the same enthusiasm in fighting for pay equity for contingent faculty.

There is a vast gulf between the United Kingdom and United States on issues of organized labor, but the thread nevertheless struck a chord in terms of my evolving attitude toward tenure.

I am not now, nor have I ever been a tenured professor.

In fact, this year, my fifth out from receiving my PhD is the first that I had a full-year, full-time contract at one institution. I like my current job and would like to keep it as long as possible, but, frankly, I have all-but given up on hoping that I will ever win a tenure-track position based simply on how few of these positions come open each year. I will apply when I see good opportunities, of course, I’m just not holding my breath.

Perhaps because of this background, I am of two minds when it comes to the discourse around tenure. On the one hand, I have friends and colleagues who are tenured or tenure-track professors and attacks on tenure in Georgia, Texas, and elsewhere materially affect their jobs. On the other, the tenure system perpetuates a bifurcated system of compensation even though people at different ranks are largely doing the same job, particularly in the humanities.

(This is not just a matter of research expectations, either. People are different ranks will receive different per-course rates.)

The standard line about tenure is that it is an essential protection for free academic discourse. There is a kernel of truth here: tenure makes it more difficult to fire someone for teaching or publishing on potentially controversial issues. But I also find that defense rings hollow in a world where an ever-increasing percentage of the teaching is being done by people on annual, or even semester-by-semester, contracts. In a perfect world the solution would be to dramatically increase the number of tenured and tenure-track positions, but I have been hearing the same thing since I entered graduate school more than a decade ago and those positions only continued to disappear, even before Scott Walker kicked off the current wave of attacks on public institutions in 2015.

Faculty working conditions are student learning conditions, and contingent contracts impose challenges to sustaining departments and disciplines, for all sorts of reasons. Students can’t expect to develop relationships with their teachers, contingent faculty spend more time applying for jobs which cuts into the available time for teaching and research, and the looming threat of non-renewal shapes how faculty teach in all sorts of ways, from how to tackle controversial issues to what risks they take in offering creative and innovative pedagogy.

This is why I get frustrated when I see outlets like Lawyers, Guns, and Money respond to a speech where Dan Patrick, the Lieutenant Governor of Texas, proposes ending tenure in public universities by commenting that tenure will cease to exist in Red States in the coming years. This observation is clearly true and has been for a while, but Patrick’s proposal is a means to an end, part of a sustained attack on education and academic discourse divorced from the reality of what happens in a classroom and designed to teach a carefully curated vision of the world. While tenured faculty have long been a target of these efforts, they also represent a declining percentage of the overall faculty population.

My point is not to that we should strip anyone of tenure or the protections it affords, but that treating tenure as synonymous with free academic discourse seems to be asking a lot of people doing this work to defend a system that does not afford them the same protections. Should this not be reason fight for improved conditions of employment for contingent faculty and to insulate them the pressures of this current culture war? If nothing else, it might cushion the landing when politicians like Patrick succeed in destroying the current system.

Some thoughts on length, or I like big books and short books

I wrote a long dissertation. Too long, really, and certainly longer than most of my committee wanted to read. From cover to cover, 499 pages of shaggy and at times repetitive research, but in a format endorsed by my advisor who was convinced that something short and with a clearer narrative arc (i.e. something more readable) would be received as too insubstantial to be a dissertation.

During my oral defense, which took place on a Monday morning less than 24-hours after I returned from a conference in Canada, I articulated a vision for revising this document into a book. In particular, I wanted to fold almost all of the disparate case studies (19, accounting for about 2/3 of the length) into the core narrative. Some monographs are very well suited to illuminating a topic through narrow investigations on facets of a phenomenon. My case studies, I thought, were uneven and not suited toward offering a broad portrait of a phenomenon because I wasn’t writing about a phenomenon. Instead, I was using a regional study to talk about the relationship between imperial systems in the eastern Aegean, and I thought that these themes were best shown by tracing the evolution over time. The only case studies I wanted to leave would be two synoptic chapters (I was wrong, I only needed one) and three short appendices.

The changes I proposed that Monday morning are almost identical to what I put in my book proposal, in which I explained that I wanted to reduce the word count from a 150,000-word dissertation to a 100,000-word book (inclusive of notes). Prompted by a recent Twitter discourse on book length and the fact that I am in the home stretch of preparing my manuscript for submission, I wanted to take a moment to reflect both on how I did and offer a few thoughts on book length.

As to my own book, I ran over my word count by a little over 10% and watching the word count creep upward as I transform my citations to Chicago style has added a steady drip of anxiety to the process. I am actually close if you exclude the bibliography (some people don’t; my estimated count did), and I was on target before one of the readers for the press—correctly—pointed out that one of the chapters needed to be split into two. Each full chapter is between 9,000 and 11,000 words, so while adding this chapter substantially improved the book, it also accounts for most of the extra length.

The excess length bothered me, a lot.

Books cost money, big books cost more money, and first-time authors are unproven commodities. Book length is, of course, genre and field specific, which makes general truisms hard to come by. Romance novels fall into a rather narrow band between maybe 50,000 and 90,000, while the average fantasy book might be 100,000, but Patrick Rothfuss’ first book, The Name of the Wind, was 250,000 (the sequel was 400,000). I had read online that 100,000 words was already stretching it for a first-time academic non-fiction author, so running over by more than 10% sparked all sorts of thoughts. Would I have to cut an entire chapter? Would I have to spend hours ruthlessly trimming every trace of conversational tone from the manuscript in order to meet the word count?? Who needs a bibliography, anyway???

The solution, of course, was to email my editor, who gave me welcome guidance: send it all and let the readers decide. The readers liked the manuscript as-is…and suggested a few more minor additions.

I have an obvious bias here, but I am pleased with the outcome. The excess may be a little indulgent, but it also means that I don’t have to cut an entire chapter.

The academic discourse I have seen on Twitter—and elsewhere anecdotally—is for shorter books, at least in the non-fiction sphere. I am sympathetic to this movement. To echo what Bill Caraher has said on his blog, there is often something indulgent about long books. I increasingly find myself less attracted to long non-fiction, particularly when there is a biographical subject involved. Frequently, these books are repetitive and exult in the minutiae of a topic at the expense of making an argument. I understand why these are appealing, whether because one wants to live their “dad” life to the fullest with a blow-by-blow account of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia or because a tabloid-esque tell-all about someone’s life gives glimpses into the workings of power in Johnson’s White House or Horatio Nelson’s scandalous affair with Emma, Lady Hamilton. But that is also a matter of genre. For academic books, by contrast, the argument is the point, so much so that during coursework it is common for graduate students to talk about how to “break” a book and synthesize the scope of the argument without reading more than a few pages (this has never been one of my strengths). In truth, staying current in a field requires reading a lot of books and each person only has so much time. Short, elegant books with a clear argument are a blessing to the reader who may feel that time invested in a 170- or 200-page book is better spent than the time given to a 700-page one.

However, I am actually agnostic on book length.

Big books have their place, usually in the form of a grand synthesis covering a big topic. (Caraher suggests that the length serves to add gravitas.) I don’t often find myself sitting down to read these cover to cover, though my advisor once told me to read Pierre Briant’s From Cyrus to Alexander with a bottle of wine. More frequently, these are books that I mine for information. I read them in drips and drabs, looking for a specific discussion or for a chapter that I can assign to my students. In the case of Peter Green’s Alexander to Actium, I use it as a textbook that the students read alongside primary sources and other supplementary material. In other words, I like these books as resources.

That said, I am in broad agreement with Caraher on Graeber and Wengrow’s The Dawn of Everything. It found a lot of their points provocative in terms of how to understand the early history of humanity, but this was not a book written in a way that sections could be easily extracted. The Dawn of Everything grew out of conversations between the two scholars, and it read like that to me. It felt conversational, but with a tendency to wander around drawing broad connections that illuminated whatever theme they wanted to talk about at a given moment. I came away with a lot to think about in terms of how I teach the early history of humanity and some things to follow up on, but I also suspect I should revisit at least some of the chapters in advance of teaching my world history survey again and the book’s indulgent length does not fill me with a whole lot of desire to do so.

What I look for is for the length of a book to fit its topic. Problems arise in long books because the extra space is as likely to cause bloat as it is to actually be necessary, which, in turn, diminishes how useful I find those books. My book is not nearly as The Dawn of Everything and the scholars who reviewed it for the press thought that the length was appropriate to the topic. I just hope that the general audience agrees when it finally comes out.

A Reading Goal For 2022 and the January List

In recent years I have become almost obsessive about tracking what I read. I have kept a running list of what I read for “fun” since 2013 (and intermittently before that) and started tracking the books I read for academic purposes in 2020. Beyond mere obsession, this habit allows me to visualize my reading diet, which has led to a dramatic shift in what I read over the past few years.

In December last year, it occurred to me that my academic reading skewed overwhelmingly to books. I read articles, of course, when they are related to my research, but I had largely gotten away from reading articles as a regular practice. Coming into the year, therefore, I set an ambitious reading goal to fix this, but withheld saying anything until determining whether it was even remotely doable.

The goal is this. Every work day this year—roughly every week day outside of holidays and vacations—I aim to read one article. If I am successful, this will amount to roughly 20 articles a month, or 240 articles for the year. Some of these will be research related, many others will go toward informing how I teach, and I am prioritizing articles from the past decade. I suspect that I will fall often fall short (I did in January), but, as with many of my other reading goals, this is as much about building habits as winning a prize. My reward is being a better teacher and researcher.

At the end of every month, I will publish the list of articles I read and highlight a few honorable mentions.

Here is January’s list:

Honorable Mention

  • Debby Sneed, “Disability and Infanticide in Ancient Greece,” Hesperia 90 (2021): 747–72
  • Matthew Simonton, “Stability and Violence in Classical Greek Democracies and Oligarchies,” Classical Antiquity 36 (2017): 52–103

The List

  • Bill Caraher, “Documenting Wesley College: A Mildly Anarchist Teacher Encounter,” [posted to his blog]
  • Samuel Ellis, “Greek Conceptualizations of Persian Traditions: Gift-giving and Friendship in the Persian Empire,” Classical Quarterly 71 (2021): 77–88
  • Walter Scheidel, “Building Up Slaveries in Ancient Italy and the African Savanna,” [posted to Academia.edu]
  • Deborah Levine Gera, “Themistocles’ Persian Tapestry,” Classical Quarterly 57 (2007): 445–57
  • Jessica Romney, “Women in an Ancient Greek History Course: From Cameo to Part of the Whole,” Classical World 114 (2021): 227–48
  • Daniel Unruh, “Loaves in a Cold Oven: Tyranny and Sterility in Herodotus’ Histories,” Classical World 114 (2021): 281–308
  • Georgia Proietti, “War and Memory: The Battle of Psyttaleia Before Herodotus’ “Histories”,” British Institute for Classical Studies 58 (2015): 43–54
  • Naoise Mac Sweeney, “Regional Identities in the Greek World: Myth and Koinon in Ionia,” Historia 70 (2021): 268–314
  • Julia Kindt, “Personal Religion: A Productive Category for the Study of Greek Religion?,” Journal of Hellenic Studies 135 (2015): 35–50
  • Valeria Pratolongo, “The Greeks and the Indigenous Populations of Eastern Sicily in the Classical Era,” Mediterranean Archaeology 27 (2014): 85–90
  • Denise Demetriou, “What is an Emporion? A Reassessment,” Historia 60 (2011): 255–72
  • Lela M. Urquhart, “Competing Traditions in the Historiography of Ancient Greek Colonization in Italy,” Journal of of the History of Ideas 75 (2014): 23–44
  • Nicolette Pavlides, “The Sanctuaries of Apollo Maleatas and Apollo Tyritas in Laconia: Religion in Spartan-Perioikic Relations,” Annual of the British School at Athens 113 (2018): 270–305
  • Graham Shipley, “Sparta and its Perioikic Neighbors: a century of reassessment,” Hermathena 181 (2006): 51–82
  • Charlotte Dunn, “Messene Besieged,” Acta Classica 61 (2018): 190–200
  • Valerij Goušchin, “Solon’s Law on Stasis and the Rise of Pisistratus,” Acta Classica 59 (2016): 101–13