The Past is an Alien World

With the spring semester starting to wind down, I have found my attention starting to wander toward the classes I’ll be teaching this fall. Two of the classes have a somewhat prescribed range of topics simply by the virtue of being variations on first-year courses for students, but the third is my version of an upper-division Greek History survey—the first course that I ever taught as the instructor of record and the course other than general education US history surveys that I have taught more than any other. All of which is to say that I have well-established materials for this course.

And yet, I also tinker with the course every time I teach it.

“Tinkering” in this context can mean a lot of things, from assignments, to readings, to the order of topics, to drawing current events into the course. Already for the fall semester I am going to be using several new books as core readings and more clearly signpost the phases of the course to complete the metamorphosis the course has undergone since the first iteration as an inexperienced teacher. But I have also been debating whether a more fundamental tweak might prove fruitful.

It is a shibboleth of teaching history, and something codified in many of our learning objectives, that the job of the teacher includes helping the students make meaningful connections to the contemporary world. That is, the past has value inasmuch as it has contemporary relevance.

How this target is reached can happen in a lot of different ways. In some classes they happen almost subconsciously because the importance of, say, the US Civil War, for someone living in the United States are impossible to miss. For other topics, though, such connections are less intuitive, and the further back in time one goes, the more alien things might seem. This is not to say that the task is impossible or even worthless, and discussion about the origin of systems or concepts (e.g. democracy) that people in the modern world take for granted can create these productive connections. In the case of my Ancient Persia class, for instance, we have spent a lot of time talking about how Greco-Roman sources distort our understanding of Persia using tropes that have continued to inform how Europeans talk about people in West Asia.

In a very non-scientific study, I have observed that one of the most common techniques is to suggest that the ancients are just like us. Indeed, I have been guilty of this in the past, though I prefer to do this by pointing out that our own world is much weirder and more alien than we typically assume.

I thought about this juxtaposition again last week when I read Carlos Noreña’s essay on Paul Veyne. Noreña writes:

One comes away from his many publications with a deeper appreciation for the sheer distance of Mediterranean antiquity from the present: past worlds, past lives, past experiences and past epistemologies that now, in the wake of his scholarship, look profoundly alien.What is more, it suggests that our intimacy with that world might be a false one. It forces us, as a result, to look at past and present anew. 

Perhaps my favorite thing about ancient Greece is that it is fabulously complex in a way that defies simple description. While this is true of all times and places, I find that something about the political fragmentation of Greece and how that overlaps with the development of a more-or-less common literary canon that is also in conversation with West Asia is particularly fascinating. In fact, I recently came across an eighteenth century complaint that the history of Greece defied an easy narrative, like the one that the growth of imperium provided for Rome.

I was already thinking about whether it might be productive to embrace the alienness of ancient Greece in class when the hollow husk of Twitter started buzzing with “defenders” of Classical learning demanding that people emulate Odysseus and accusing Homeric scholars of harboring a leftist agenda because they dared use the text of the Odyssey to point out why Odysseus might not be a great model. The irony, of course, being that the uncritical veneration of the Homeric stories comes from a thoroughly modern understanding of heroism and superficial understanding of the ancient world where you find both critiques of the central heroic characters already in the epics and a rich discourse critiquing everything from individual heroes to the very nature of epic poetry.

Simplifying these complexities at least to some extent can lower barriers to entry, but I also think that it can do the material a disservice. These classics contain a depth to these that warrants reading and rereading precisely because they developed in the complex cultural milieu that was ancient Greece. I find a lot of these complexities deeply human, but I also wonder if preserving some of the alienness might force us to engage with the complexity and thus prevent antiquity from being simplified and reduced to culture war tropes.

This post is a revised and expanded version of a Twitter thread posted on April 23, 2023.

Weekly Varia no. 23, 04/22/23

The antepenultimate week of classes this semester passed in something of a blur, and I found myself working late into Thursday night grading and prepping for Friday’s class as the semester rushes toward its grand finale. I thus went to bed Thursday night suspecting that this intro would be another meditation on the rhythm of academic life.

On Friday morning I woke up early, planning to sit down at my computer, finish the last couple of essays, put the final touches on the slide deck for my afternoon class, and start sending my usual slate of reminders that I send to my students heading into the weekend.

Only I couldn’t log into Blackboard. Or email.

Both were annoying, but I could still access the slide deck, so continued working on the presentation and went to campus…where Blackboard and email were still out. I taught my first class, which went well enough for a Friday morning. By the time my morning office hours were set to start the presentation was done, but Blackboard and email were still out. Then a staff member stopped by my office to tell me that there was a cybersecurity issue and all computers on the school network had to be shut down. Which meant that the class slides I had stayed up putting together were totally useless, on top of still being unable to grade anything.

So I took office hours to a bench on a quad, leaving a note on my door about where I could be found.

Nothing had changed by the start of my afternoon class. Not only could I not use the slides that double as the outline for my presentation (I don’t script my lectures), but also the activities I had come up with for today required access to the readings distributed through Blackboard that, even had my students diligently read them before today, they could no longer access. And on a day when I was already short of sleep. Now, there are topics about which I can give a reasonably coherent presentation without visual aids, and I once did 75 minutes on the Persian Wars as an emergency fill-in with only about an hour’s notice. I even probably could have offered a reasonable approximation of today’s presentation despite not being one of my stronger topics, but it would have been harder to follow and I wouldn’t have been able to do one of my staple activities in class where I put evidence on the board and solicit interpretations.

Walking toward class, I thought about which parts of today’s discussion needed to stand alone and which parts I could distribute and repurpose for next week’s classes—both and easier and harder because conceive of my classes in terms of narrative arcs on the level of the week, unit. By the time I started talking today, I had a good sense of today’s talking points and where they fit into the larger trajectory of the course, which allowed me to release my students for the weekend after only about 20 minutes.

At the time I’m writing this on Friday night, the university system is still out and I don’t know when it is going to come back online. The whole day left me reflecting on the centrality of devices to our workflows. I use these tools because they are convenient and offer an enormous amount of flexibility for when students can turn in their work, but I don’t need them to teach. However, they they have also become such default expectations that suddenly losing access creates a serious disruption. Ditto for communication. Leaving a note on my office door announcing that all work due today has received an automatic extension until Sunday or whenever Blackboard is back (whichever is later) is a poor substitute for direct communication, but it is also what I had at my disposal without access to email or Blackboard. I might have found this disruption annoying and mildly inconvenient because it creates a backlog that still needs, but it also meant a day or more when I could not grade. By contrast, I found myself trying to give reassuring answers to students trying to turn in assignments to other professors who weren’t in the office and couldn’t be reached by email. The students were quite anxious, understandably at this time of the semester.

This week’s varia:

  • Excavations south of Rome have revealed a large, luxurious winery that included dining rooms with a view of fountains that gushed with the recently-pressed wine. The story in The Guardian is reporting on a new open-access article by Emlyn Dodd and others.
  • Excavations in France have revealed a Roman temple that might have been dedicated to Mars.
  • In addition to the usual roundup this week in Pasts Imperfect, Shelley Haley writes about her experience working on the Netflix DocuSeries Queen Cleopatra. I have primarily followed news around this series through people on social media complaining that the series conflates African with Subsaharan African in the casting, but I appreciated Haley’s comments about what she hoped to achieve with her involvement and would recommend also Katherine Blouin’s comments on this (and past) decisions on how to represent Cleopatra on the screen.
  • Carlos Noreña has a long essay in Aeon on the work of French historian Paul Veyne, focusing on how Veyne’s commitment to the alienness of the ancient world led to inventive arguments. The piece reminds me that I should read more of Veyne’s oeuvre.
  • Dimitri Nakassis has some worthwhile notes on a state of the field conference on Mediterranean Archaeology.
  • Modern Medieval has a piece debunking the dishy historical claim recently in the news that Leonardo Da Vinci was Jewish.
  • The University of Michigan is planning to withhold pay from striking graduate students after a judge sided with the school. The graduate students are striking for livable wages, and arguing that the university is negotiating in bad faith. The union has created a strike fund.
  • BuzzFeed laid off 15% of its staff and shut down BuzzFeed News in a pivot to AI. Again for everyone in the back: AI isn’t actually replacing human workers, but it is being used as a reason to fire them. Count me among the chorus who think that this will have a profound negative effect on society.
  • Jan Dutkiewicz and Gabriel Rosenberg write in The New Republic about meat as a front in the Culture War, despite the numerous ways that the industrial meat industry does demonstrable harm to the very communities buying into the rhetoric. They write: “People once wondered whether an openly gay Republican could ever win major office; today the better question is whether an openly vegan Republican could.”
  • From Vox, another piece on the Colorado River water crisis, with infographics that show where most of the water goes. Spoiler: most of it goes to crop irrigation, and most of that crop irrigation goes to alfalfa to feed livestock, especially beef.
  • A reporter in Southeast Oklahoma left a recording device in the room of a county commissioner’s meeting because he suspected that business continued after the formal end, in violation of Oklahoma law. On the recording, the sheriff and other people present talk about killing journalists (including the man who left the device and his son) and lament that they can’t hang black people who now “got more rights than we got.” The sheriff’s department made a statement in which they claim the recording was made illegally and that felony charges will be filed. The Republican governor of Oklahoma, Kevin Stitt, has called on the county officials to resign, though a cynical reading of this might be that this is yet another instance where actions wholly in keeping with the direction of the Republican party have become so extreme that they are detrimental to electoral politics.
  • Kids asking for a society that doesn’t shoot them seems like a reasonable ask, and yet. In Kansas City, 16-year old Ralph Yarl was shot by an 84 year old white man after he rang the doorbell of the wrong house when picking up his siblings; in Texas, two cheerleaders were shot by a man in an HEB parking lot when one of them went to the wrong car after practice; in North Carolina a man shot a six-year old girl and her parents because a basketball rolled into his yard; and in rural New York, in a part of the state I have driven through on a number of occasions to and from Vermont, a man shot and killed a teen who drove down the wrong driveway to turn around. The trigger-happy paranoia is really jarring to see, and lethality of modern firearms make it all the easier for the paranoia to turn into homicide.
  • A bystander tried to get a passing Chicago police car to stop and intervene in a violent assault taking place over the weekend. The police did not stop and the bystander says that a desk sergeant told her that it was because Brandon Johnson (the leftist candidate) was elected mayor. Actions like this and the unaccountability of law enforcement are among the strongest arguments in favor of defunding law enforcement.
  • As Supreme Court watchers anticipated, the justices voted to stay the ban on Mifepristone, with dissents coming from (at least) Alito and Thomas. Elie Mystal with an analysis of the decision, as well as the Alito dissent that criticizes the other justices for making this decision using the shadow docket…by citing their opposition to his use of the same procedure.
  • Donald Trump, the twice-impeached ex-president and likely Republican nominee for 2024, is back on the campaign trail and is touting an ever-more dystopian and authoritarian vision for his second term, including using the military for police action, patriotic education, and planned “freedom cities.” This sort of rhetoric makes for a bleak-looking future.
  • Missouri’s Attorney General’s office launched a tip-line for “transgender concerns” this week, but the site lacked a CAPTCHA, which allowed internet users to use bots to spam the portal with nonsense submissions until they took it offline.
  • David Choe, the star of the Netflix show Beef, appears to be using copyright law to suppress people talking about an episode his podcast in which he talked about coercing a masseuse into sexual activity and, when the porn actress on the podcast with him called him out for raping the woman, acknowledged it as “rapey behavior.” Choe is attempting to do damage control.

Album of the week: Brett Dennen, Smoke and Mirrors (2013)

Currently reading: Robert Graves, I, Claudius; Caroline Winterer, The Mirror of Antiquity

Doing History 101

Teaching history in an era of CRT panic means facing a constant barrage from the Nothing But the Facts Brigade who vocally assert that the only way to teach history is to offer nothing but the facts. Anything else, they say, is tantamount to injecting politics into the classroom. Left wing politics, mind you, because conservative politics in this country often get labeled as apolitical, especially when it comes to a traditional, triumphalist, narrative of US history. The hegemonically white narrative.

Now, these claims are on their face patently absurd, and the same people who insist that teachers stick to the facts also want them to omit facts like the massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890, the Tulsa Race Massacre in 1921, or Japanese Internment in the 1940s that are deemed “too divisive.” The reality is that teaching (and doing) history always relies on processes of analysis, selection, and omission, and the ramifications of these choices become particularly pronounced at the survey level.

Take, for instance, my Persian history course. I could have decided that my students would benefit from a detailed operational study of the wars between the Sasanian Empire and Rome that we have been studying recently, and thus lectured campaign season by campaign season, introducing my students to the characters of each general, the conditions of warfare, and the tactical considerations of each battle. Instead, we have focused on the institutional structures of empire, royal presentation and ideology, and how to critically assess the Greek and Roman sources, which is both better in keeping with how I taught the rest of the course and required less work on my part to master and synthesize this campaign data. Neither of these two approaches is less grounded in the historical facts of the Sasanian Empire, but the students receive a somewhat different understanding of the historical period depending on where we place our focus.

I found myself reflecting on these issues while listening to an episode of the Keith Law Show with David Grann about his new book, The Wager. Grann’s books are popular history, but I broadly enjoyed The Killers of the Flower Moon and would consider reading his other books.

After setting the stage for the book, which details an 18th century mutiny aboard the HMS Wager, Law floated a question about an aspect of the book that he found particularly remarkable: that Grann infused the book with a sense of uncertainty about what actually happened on the Wager and thus which of the accounts ought to be believed.

For his part, Grann responded with predictable answers. He described how that very uncertainty created a mystery for him to try to unravel by analyzing the competing narratives that came out in the trial that followed he return of some members of the crew (including Lord Byron’s grandfather) and by putting the event in the institutional, social, and cultural context in order to explain how the event likely unfolded and what its consequences were. To be sure, the mutiny on the Wager sounds like a particularly striking story an Grann is a talented writer, but I found the answers so simple that I actually opted not to listen to his interview on Fresh Air that came out the same day.

I have a lot of respect for Keith Law as both a reader and a writer even where our tastes diverge (e.g. on Arkady Martine’s A Memory Called Empire), and his personal blog was one of the reasons I started writing about novels in this space. But this line of questioning, which Law described as something he had never really seen so prominently in a book took me by surprise. I know that Law’s non-fiction reading skews toward science and social science and it may be that Grann’s approach in The Wager foregrounds these source question to a degree unusual in popular histories, but the answers were in a sense History 101.

However, this exchange also made me think again about the Nothing But the Facts Brigade online. I found this methodology discussion rather basic, but I have also spent a lot of years training as a historian and now have these conversations about methodology with students as my job. If anything, I suspect that the conversation reflects how tightly these pernicious ideas about history grip the public imagination. What I described as Grann’s History 101 answer about carefully analyzing historical sources within their context and then spinning out an explanation of what happened requires skills honed through years of practice. The facts denuded of interpretation both denies the importance of stories for making meaning and obscures that any choice is political. There are layers of complexity that one can add when it comes to methodological approaches for academic history, but Grann’s answer should be understood as the basic methodology of both doing and teaching history. The fact that it is not at best and actively under attack at worst is part of the problem.

Weekly Varia no. 22, 04/15/23

Spring arrived in force in Northeast Missouri this week. The world is starting to turn green, but the leaves around town have largely been preceded by an explosion of flowering things. I can’t complain about the views and the rising temperatures have drawn students out into the quad outside my office, making campus generally feel more alive than it does throughout the winter.

However, spring also comes at a cost. I have never been one to suffer from allergies in the past, but one of these flowering things causes my sinuses to go haywire each spring in Kirksville, which has made teaching classes a bit of an adventure this week. This phase only lasts a couple of weeks, fortunately, and the nice weather almost cancels out the temporary pain. Besides, I’ll be complaining about the heat again soon enough.

This week’s varia:

Album of the Week: Counting Crows, August and Everything After (2007)

Currently Reading: Julie Schumacher, The Shakespeare Requirement, Caroline Winterer, The Mirror of Antiquity

Some Writing Advice for Students

Some of my undergraduate students were compiling advice from professors on the topic of writing history paper. I had a lot to say, even while trying to keep the advice from become too long winded. Below are the answers I wrote to the questions the students provided.

What is the most important thing that you want to know about writing a history paper?

Most people struggle with writing in some way or another.

I don’t mean that everyone struggles in the same way or that you can’t enjoy the process, but rather that the act of generating thoughts, compiling evidence, and editing the product so that it is compelling to an audience does not come naturally to most people, and even good writers often do not write good first drafts.

That’s the bad news.

The good news is that it is an exercise that gets easier with practice. 

That said, there isn’t one right way to write. Some people are discovery writers, finding their thoughts as they write. Other people carefully outline all of their ideas and know exactly what they want to say before putting pen to paper. Speaking of the medium, find what works for you. Some writers work best at a computer, while others write entire drafts by hand and use the step of typing those passages as a first chance to revise the essay. Kevin J. Anderson writes entire books by dictating into a recorder while hiking with his dog. Some writers find that they write well late at night. Others write best in the morning. Ernest Hemingway started writing before dawn. Ursula Le Guin described her schedule as writing in the morning, but noted that after 8:00 p.m. she “tend[s] to be very stupid and we don’t talk about this.” Roxane Gay writes to the ambient sounds of Law and Order, while other people listen to music or nothing at all.

The challenge is to find a process that works for you and then to make time for it. The dirty secret to writing is that you just have to write. So block aside time where you can tune out distractions for a concrete period of time and just do it. Then come back and make sure you edit what you wrote.

Where is your preferred place to begin research on a topic?

Once you have your general topic, start by reading your sources. Textbooks, historical surveys, and even Wikipedia can give you a general overview of a topic and list some useful sources, but the most important thing you can do is to read your sources to see what they actually say. Then start asking questions about that source. What is it not saying? Is there something it talks about obliquely? How does it connect to other sources on this same topic? Is there another type of evidence that would offer conflicting or complementary information? 

Reading modern scholarship is all well and good (and important!), but nothing beats the evidence itself, especially for ancient history, and what you find in the sources will help you find relevant modern scholarship.

How do I choose a research topic?

The best research topic is a puzzle, with your thesis being the key to solving the puzzle and the essay putting that key into action. Now, that puzzle need not revolutionize the field for every class that you take, but framing it in these terms can help guide the research and clarify the thesis. 

How do you ensure that you are addressing the correct question?

At the risk of being tongue-in-cheek with regard to this question, I think this is not the right question to ask here. While some professors offer prompts with specific points that must be addressed to earn a particular grade, that is often not the case with research papers. A better question, therefore, is whether the question you’re addressing is the appropriate scope for the length of paper you’re writing. Some questions are answerable in 5 pages, some in 25, and some require entire books. One frequent issue I see in short papers is that students will craft an enormous thesis, often with one broad topic and three explanatory points. The slightly hyperbolic example that I wrote for a writing handout is: 

“The Roman Empire collapsed because of barbarian migrations, the challenge of independent generals, and administrative decay.”

Each of these things can be true, and each of these could be a compelling thesis in their own right, together they set this imagined author up to give a broad summary of barbarian migrations, independent generals, and administrative decay, while precluding either specific analysis of any of these developments or a strong argument. By contrast, a still large, but perhaps specific enough thesis might argue that: “Climate change and disease caused administrative and economic decay in the fourth century that allowed migrating German tribes to establish new kingdoms in territories previously occupied by the Roman Empire.”

What is the most common mistake you see students make when writing a paper?

Waiting until the last minute and thus not giving yourself enough time. Some of this is not within your control, since the academic semester means short turnaround times and juggling various assignments with overlapping deadlines. But you’re also doing yourself a disservice by waiting until the night before an assignment is due to start writing it. 

Even if you don’t have time to write the paper far in advance, start the process as soon as possible. Maybe that means poking through a source between classes or over breakfast, or mulling over which of two prompts you want to write on as soon as the assignment comes out. Or maybe your significant other would like to hear all about that paper you’re writing. Not only will these steps make it easier for you to write the paper when you sit down the night before, but they may just give you enough time to revise your introduction when you discover that the initial thesis just doesn’t quite work anymore.

When do you recommend a student reach out for processor advice?

When you have a specific question, but far enough in advance that they can actually help.

Questions can come at any stage of the research and writing process, but the more that you can give them to work with, the more they’ll be able to help you. “I’ve been looking for X source, do you know how I can access it?” is going to be much more productive than “I don’t know where to start.” Make clear the steps that you have taken in your research, which both shows your professor that you have been working and will make them better able to diagnose the issue and put you on a productive path.

But, a word of warning: bring those questions far enough in advance of the deadline that they are actually able to help. Even when questions that come in at the last minute get answered immediately, you might not have time to actually implement the advice.

Weekly Varia no. 21, 04/08/23

I am not a particularly religious individual, but I have a soft spot for the traditions and rituals that accompany holidays. Passover, which started this past week is one that I find fascinating, but I have to confess that it is not my favorite holiday.

Passover ostensibly celebrates the liberation of the Hebrew slaves from Egypt as told in Exodus and literally drips with symbolism (pun intended, if you’re familiar with the seder plate). But these traditions are perpetually changing such that a festival that blends elements of a Greek symposium with Jewish ritual and an invented history with a flexible ritual manual (the Haggadah) that can either can freeze the tradition at a point of imagined purity or be updated to address the concerns of contemporary participants, if often in ways that are dissonant with the modern political climate—especially with the traditionally invocation of “next year in Jerusalem.”

Last night while attending a seder I found myself thinking about what a “historically accurate Haggadah” might look like. No references to Pharaoh’s pyramids, if for no other reason than that the chronology is wrong—Khufu’s pyramid was built more than thousand years before the Exodus was supposed to happen. Perhaps, I thought, the Haggadah stories become framed as the product of an oral storyteller balanced against the commentary of a contemporary archaeologist and context can be added to the traditions of reclining for the meal by pointing to the myriad of influences that make up modern Judaism. Precision gets added to the invocations of freedom to condemn those of every background who threaten it. Of course, I quickly snapped back to the present because the purpose of a seder is to invoke and create community rather than to quibble about the nature of labor in ancient Egypt.

But my actual beef with Passover isn’t the service, it’s the food. As much as homemade matzah is a pretty good flatbread, I have been known to joke that I should be able to use a dollop of my starter so long as the baking is complete in the requisite time because you wouldn’t want to leave a carefully curated starter behind in Egypt. (This is not usually how leavening worked in the ancient world. Like I said, a joke.) Nevertheless, I used the seder as an excuse to try a new dessert recipe, producing a delicious and decadent dairy-free flourless chocolate cake, topped with a chocolate ganache.

Since this weekend is also Easter, I get an extra day off, which I’m going to use to sleep, read, and catch up on grading. Whether your holiday of choice this weekend is Ramadan, Passover, Easter, the arrival of spring, or just the regular end of the week, may you find it restful and rewarding.

This week’s varia:

  • Bret Devereaux placed an op-ed in the New York Times, arguing for the importance of the Liberal Arts for a functioning, free, democratic society. His argument here, in effect, is that public and political discourse are strangling these programs, despite both practical and philosophical importance of what students learn in these programs. Bret is an adjunct professor and an excellent historian who has quite a large following on his blog ACOUP, which is an enviable model for public engagement.
  • The lead story of Pasts Imperfects this week looks at recovering the lives of ancient artisans, exploring what the physical objects can tell us about the people who made them.
  • I read three pieces this week on “active learning” that spoke to each other:
    • A couple weeks ago at Inside Higher Ed, Sarabeth Grant talked about how “active classrooms” can be one too many things for overwhelmed students to handle. She points out that many students are unprepared for active classrooms, and relates an anecdote about a particularly negative experience. I find that the preparation varies by discipline and institution, but very much find that all active, all the time has to be handled with extreme care.
    • Jonathan Wilson comments on the “recipe” as a metaphor for teaching, pointing out that simply reproducing the latest buzz of pedagogy discourse is not going to work for every teacher or every classroom. In the middle of the piece he reiterates that lectures and other forms of “transmission” teaching is necessary to facilitate active learning. He describes learning to teach as “learning to cook” as opposed to following the recipe.
    • David Labaree published an essay from his new book in which he makes a case that college teaching is both better than you might think and that it is better than the institutional structure of higher education requires it to be. This is a bit of a contrarian argument, comparing professors to a competitive street gang competing for popularity among the students, but I think he’s got a legitimate point. Professors might have different criteria for success and have different levels of creativity or attention to the craft, but most professors take this part of the job seriously.
  • Patrick Luiz Sullivan De Oliveira makes a case for what he calls “epistemic Luddism” against the encroachment of AI on education. Basically, he says the same thing that I have been on about with AI, which is that its proponents largely misunderstand the purpose of essay assignments.
  • LSU played a great game to beat Iowa in the Women’s Final Four earlier this week, though the game was marred by bad officiating. Iowa’s star, Caitlin Clark plays a game like Steph Curry that is a lot of fun to watch, but she is also a trash talker. Angel Reese of LSU, a black player, used a similar gesture to Clark at the end of the game, which caused (mostly white) people online to become outraged and Dr. Jill Biden gave a comment that she’d like to invite Iowa to the White House, as well as LSU. The commentary is mostly not worth reading, but I wanted to highlight that Clark, for her part, seems to have her head on straight and rejected both the criticism of Reese and the invitation to the White House. I also liked Paul Thomas’ reflection on his experience with race on the basketball court.
  • Paul Thomas observes that the laments of conservative academics are performative, just as much as most academics perform progressive social politics in an institution that rewards conservatism.
  • Israeli police raided al-Aqsa Mosque, beating worshippers and arresting more than 350 people. This during Ramadan, which happens to coincide with Passover (and Easter) this year. Israeli police seem to need no excuse for this behavior, but I can’t help but wonder if the convergence of holidays is connected given the desires of religious zealots of both Christian and Jewish traditions who are more aggressively than ever working to define Israel as an exclusively Jewish state.
  • Last week there was quite a buzz about a story from California based on a lawsuit filed against the Shasta County Fair and law enforcement. In short, fair officials decided to teach a young girl a lesson after she bonded with a goat that she owned and was raising for an auction. The girl didn’t want to have the goat slaughtered and refused to turn it over, which prompted the fair to file a criminal grand theft complaint and deputies drove 500 miles with a search warrant to seize the goat, leading to it being slaughtered. Everything about the story is excessive, and in Vox Gabriel Rosenberg and Jan Dutkiewicz explore how the story is reflective of a larger ideology around 4-H and the inhumane nature of the meat industry.
  • Tennessee’s legislature and its Republican supermajority voted to expel two young black men for their participation in a peaceful protest against gun violence, while narrowly voting to keep the white woman who also participated. This is the sort of action used during the early period of Reconstruction as Black legislators started to be voted into state congresses. This gross, reactionary vote puts the GOP priorities on display, even if it will likely result in a fundraising windfall for both men since nothing prohibits their district boards from simply appointing them as interim legislators or for them to run (and very likely win) the special election. By contrast, one of those Republican legislators rhetorically asked protestors what gun they’d like to be shot with (if not the AR-15).
  • Bolts Magazine shed light on an election loophole in Georgia where an official (in this case judges) who announces their resignation within six months of a scheduled election allows the governor to appoint a replacement and delay the election of a replacement to the next full election cycle, thereby circumventing the democratic process and dissuading candidates from running lest the rug get swept out from under them.
  • Pro Publica has an investigation into the relationship between the billionaire Harlan Crow and Justice Clarence Thomas, including the wide range of gifts that Crow has bestowed on Thomas over the years that the latter has never disclosed. Naturally. Crow has an extensive collection of Nazi memorabilia in his home and a statue garden with (apparently genuine) statues of 20th century dictators, but he apparently is more comfortable discussing his other collections.
  • The British Museum changes tune on repatriation of the Parthenon Marbles and is now offering Greece an “exclusive NFT.” The rare good April Fools piece.

Album of the Week: The Barefoot Movement, Figures of the Year (2013)

Currently Reading: Salman Rushdie, Midnight’s Children; Julie Schumacher, The Shakespeare Requirement; Caroline Winterer, The Mirror of Antiquity

A plump cat in a sunbeam

Eating to Extinction

What we’re being offered appears at first to be diverse, until you realise it is the same kind of ‘diversity’ that is spreading around the globe in identical fashion; what the world buys and eats is becoming more and more the same. Consider these facts: the source of much of the world’s food – seeds – is mostly in the control of just four corporations; half of all the world’s cheeses are produced with bacteria or enzymes manufactured by a single company; one in four beers drunk around the world is the product of one brewer; from the USA to China, most global pork production is based around the genetics of a single breed of pig; and, perhaps most famously, although there are more than 1,500 different varieties of banana, global trade is dominated by just one, the Cavendish, a cloned fruit grown in monocultures so vast their scale can only be comprehended from the view of an aeroplane or by satellite.

Norman Borlaug’s work and the Green Revolution show us anything, it is that through human efforts and ingenuity, food systems can be transformed. As we have seen, that transformation was only ever designed to be short-lived; it was a clever fix for feeding the world at a particular point in time. Borlaug himself believed it could only be sustained for twenty-five to thirty years, but the world became locked into that way of feeding itself.

The consequences of monoculture agriculture should be familiar to anyone who has been paying attention to the news. The imminent extinction of the Cavendish banana and coffee are the most obvious examples, but one might also think of the recent spike in the cost of eggs attributed to a massive outbreak of avian flu or the staggering data about how little of mammalian biomass is wild. Humans have always sought to control the environment, but their capacity to do so increased exponentially in the 20th century such that the Wizards of the Green Revolution created enormously productive food systems that simultaneously made these systems less diverse and thus less resilient.

This, in essence, is the argument of Dan Saladino’s Eating to Extinction. As much a manifesto as an investigation, Saladino argues for the preservation of a diverse food system, in all meanings of the term.

Eating to Extinction is, in essence, interlocking case studies on a single theme. The book unfolds across thirty four case studies divided into ten thematic sections by type of food.

One set of chapters focus on how a particular heirloom variety of plant or animal can help provide sustainability to the modern food system. For instance, one chapter examines industrial chickens compared to the Black Ogye Chicken from South Korea, while others examine wheats and coffees that resilient against the effects of climate change, and another examines how wild banana strains can resist the types of blight that killed the Gros Michel and is now threatening the Cavendish. Elsewhere the threat comes from the clear-cutting of forests.

Another set of chapters focus on the cultural side of food systems that have been threatened by everything from authoritarian dictatorships in Albania to regulatory rules about how products with protected designation of origin must be produced (e.g. in terms of the cultures used for cheese) to the economic pressures that prompt young people to leave the old ways behind. Here the loss is both that of sustainable systems that evolved to survive under harsh conditions and a more profound loss of meaning that conditions people to accept what the industrial food system has on offer.

If this makes Eating to Extinction sound like a smörgåsbord of topics, you would not be wrong. These are an array of vignettes on a theme, which Saladino allows to lead him in a variety of different directions. One chapter, for instance, offers criollo cacao as a way to stimulate the Venezuelan economy without oil, a second explores how marine life can quickly bounce back in ocean preserves that ban deep-sea trawling, and still others profile individuals aiming to bring perry and traditional cheeses back to prominence in England. Every chapter follows from the same theme and works to serve the same general argument, even while often looking quite different.

What makes Eating to Extinction a compelling read is its balance between the horrors of the modern food system and an optimistic note. Each chapter interrogates the crisis of either monoculture or capitalism like modern meat chicken that matures in under a month and the Pu-erh tea that the harvesters are incapable of affording, which Saladino balances against the deep well of genetic diversity that is both under threat and offers possible sources of salvation.

Preserving these systems, he argues, is a choice, but one that is not too late to make. At least not yet.


I finished Julie Schumacher’s Dear Committee Members just before the last book post went up. Since then, I have nearly S.A. Chakraborty’s The Adventures of Amina al-Sirafi and I am working through Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. I rarely read two novels at once these days, but my wife and I decided to start a book club for just the two of us where we read a set amount each week and then talk about that section over a bottle of wine.

Weekly Varia no. 20, 04/01/23

Today is the day we ponder that existential question: are you even a historian if you don’t like baseball?

~Me, on Twitter in 2021

Baseball is back this week, which was a bright spot in what was otherwise an exhausting week. Nothing particularly bad happened other than a couple nights of poor sleep, too many commitments, and a weather front that played havoc with my sinuses, all of which conspired to have me dragging through Friday. But, on Thursday night, I tuned into ESPN for the opening night game between the Houston Astros and the Chicago White Sox. Other than a mild rooting interest in the players on my fantasy teams and a long-time distaste of the White Sox based on a division rivalry with my team (the Minnesota Twins), I didn’t have a strong rooting interest in the game.

And yet, I loved the broadcast. Some of the things I enjoyed, like the incorporation of analytics into the broadcast and little gimmicks like having a player mic’d up so that he can answer questions while on the field were nice touches that the broadcast had begun incorporating over the past few years, to great effect, but I thought that these elements blended perfectly with the pace of the game that noticeably picked up because of the rule changes new this year, like the addition of a pitch clock. The feel of the game was the same–the game still lasts the same number of outs that it always has, and each pitch is still punctuated with a reset from the fielders that allowed the crew to carry a conversation with Alex Bregman that would be unthinkable in any other sport, but the pitch clock cut the dead space that announcers often feel compelled to fill with inane small talk. The extra half an hour can help kill a long July afternoon, but it drags excessively over 162 games.

Over the past few years I have allowed my sports attention to wander toward basketball and football, but, even with the final four upon us and the NBA playoffs just around the corner, opening day reminded me why baseball was my first love.

This week’s varia:

  • Neville Morley has a nice reflection on academic overwork and the ways in which academic community can both exacerbate and ameliorate aspects of it. Echoing something Jonathan Malesic talks about in The End of Burnout, Morley suggests that looking to the Rule of St. Benedict might offer a route forward inasmuch as the rule is designed to create community. This post resonated with me because I’ve been thinking about issues of academic work and legacy (again) these past few weeks. My first book came out earlier this month along with the near-simultaneous publication of my latest article, both during one of the busiest academic years I can recall in my teaching-first job, and, yet, I’m already feeling the pull toward other publications that are often used as markers of academic worth—three new article-length pieces and the next of the three additional monographs I have in mind. I can’t imagine anything will happen if I never finish this work. I am not George RR Martin with a legion of fans impatiently waiting for my next intervention, after all. But the combination of personality and conditioning make the feelings hard to resist. In my case, I am trying to remind myself of the lessons I try to instill in my students: center yourself in the process and the product will follow, and a healthy community is more important than any individual accolade.
  • NPR has a piece on UnGrading, a pedagogical model where students don’t receive grades in a traditional sense for their assignments. The piece casts a skeptical eye at the practice, pointing to evidence that students often feel that they do their best work when being graded. I am of two minds about this because, yes, I think that there are some number of students who are conditioned to believe that “not being graded” means that they don’t have to work hard and there are some ways of implementing such a system as one might on a broad scale that will lead to professors not giving the extensive feedback that UnGrading and other alternative grading models require. However, I also think that giving students at least some agency over their grades can be empowering, and I have started taking an ungraded approach to participation grades where the students write a metacognitive reflection of their engagement with the class that I plug into a formula based on things like attendance. Some students invariably overrate their performance, but I find that with a little guidance most students offer sincere reflection.
  • GPT-4 learning language model managed to hire a person online to complete a CAPTCHA, pretending to be blind.
  • Joe Biden wants unionized campaign staff. Even as a PR stunt, I find this development interesting because it is the latest move to unionize workplaces that have historically not been unionized—you know, as someone who works in another such field.
  • The Daily Kos has a rundown of states where Republican-led legislatures are curbing ballot initiatives because the voters keep passing things like Medicare expansion, marijuana legalization, voting measures, and rejecting right to work laws. My state of Missouri, which makes this list, did each of those things since 2016, despite voting for Trump with 57% of the vote.
  • Missouri’s legislature passed a budget that eliminated all funding for public libraries, in retaliation for a lawsuit from two library groups challenging a new state law that bans some library materials, as well as banning the state from contracting with any company with a diversity statement, which very well might include companies like Coca Cola.
  • Missouri’s lawmakers are overturning local ordinances in the name of preventing communities from interfering with the relationship between a patient and their doctor. What’s that, you say? This is above overturning local bans on declawing cats and not about protecting patients? Of course it is.
  • Speaking of local ordinances: the board Ron DeSantis appointed to oversee the special district by Disney Properties discovered upon taking office that the outgoing board signed a restrictive covenant with Disney giving the company power that becomes void “21 years after the death of the last survivor of the descendants of King Charles III, King of England, living as of the date of this declaration.” On the one hand, I dislike giving any one company this much power. On the other, DeSantis’ actions are downright authoritarian.
  • A New York State Grand Jury voted to indict Donald Trump on business fraud charges related to his paying off Stormy Daniels during the 2016 election. This has predictably resulted in a storm of outraged hysteria from Republican politicians, which mostly reminds me of two things. First, no politician should be above the law, and the people who reduce this piece of news to “the politics”—whether in the business of stoking outrage or looking to the horserace of the 2024 election—infuriate me. Second, I find these outrage cycles utterly exhausting.
  • NBC News has a piece on Heather McDonald whose collapse is featured in the anti-vaxx film Died Suddenly…even though she’s obviously not dead. The piece is prompted by a bill in Idaho that would make administering an mRNA vaccine a crime.
  • Atmos has a good piece on the environmental toll of Mezcal production, which can be sustainable—except that the agave plant takes years to mature, meaning that booming demand for the liquor is leading to clear-cutting forests and farmers turning to espadín, a variety of agave that matures two to four times faster than other varieties.
  • There were massive protests and a general strike in Israel this week in response to Benjamin Netanyahu’s attempted judicial overhaul, which would insulate him from future corruption charges and serve the interests of the super-religious members of his coalition in their efforts to codify Israel as a fundamentalist Jewish state. The Washington Post has a piece about the Kohelet Policy Forum, a secretive think tank, that lay behind the attempt.

Album of the Week: Turnpike Troubadours, A Long Way From Your Heart (2017)

Currently Reading: S.A. Chakraborty, The Adventures of Amina al-Sirafi, Salman Rushdie, Midnight’s Children; Michael Kulikowski, The Triumph of Empire

Weekly Varia no. 19, 03/25/23

This was the first week back from Spring Break, which means that the semester kicked back into gear. My bracket is truly busted, the NBA playoffs are right around the corner, and I have been spending a few minutes most evenings getting ready for my fantasy baseball draft next week.

But between the usual run of activities, I also found myself thinking about a line from Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children.

I am perpetually enamored of the idea of book clubs, but I don’t usually participate in them, probably because I don’t like relinquishing the control over what I read and I find that either I love a book enough that I want to pace my reading or I dislike it enough that I don’t want to finish. However, a few weeks ago my wife and I decided to start a paired read where we read an agreed upon amount over the course of the week, which we can then discuss over a bottle of wine on the weekend. Our first read is Midnight’s Children. A line from this week’s section struck a chord with some of the other topics I’ve been thinking about recently, which meant that we spent a few minutes mulling its meaning:

I learned: the first lesson of my life: nobody can face the world with his eyes open all of the time.

The sentiment holds even truer in this age of social media. This is not to denigrate context or perspective, but I also find it easy to get overwhelmed. Too easy. Context and perspective is important, but everyone needs to remember to close their eyes from time to time, too.

This week’s varia:

  • Pasts Imperfect features ancient marijuana (and other psychoactive substances) this week.
  • Charles Kenneth Roberts has a blog post highlighting how “quiet quitting” in an academic context is better defined as faculty burnout because the old academic social contract are being broken. Where, before, academics traded relatively low and periods of extreme work for perks like job security, control over their work, and respect (for instance), those perks are rapidly retreating.
  • Studies Weekly has revised school materials to comply with new Florida laws. The new materials strip all reference to race from lesson plans on Rosa Parks, rendering the episode toothless. Rosa Parks was told to move (for no particular reason) and she should be honored because “she did what she believed was right.” Removing any mention of Jim Crow laws and racial animus that sparked the confrontation is bad enough, but it almost bothers me more to see the latter sentiment being taught. She ought to be held up as an exemplar because her act of civil disobedience was part of a long struggle for equity in a deeply unequal society. The fact that she believed it right is true enough, but it also elevates the virtue of the individual actor following their beliefs to the highest order of good. Not only does this obscure the boycott that lasted for more than a year after Parks’s arrest (and the expansion of the White Citizens Council and violence that accompanied that boycott), but if all you have to praise Parks with is this sort of anodyne pablum, one might deploy the same argument about belief in what one believes is right about any number of genocidal sociopaths. This is in fact one of the exact examples I give my students about the importance of specificity in writing.
  • A public charter school (an oxymoron if I’ve ever heard one) in Florida (checks out) popular with Christian Conservatives removed its principal after sixth grade students were shown a picture of Michelangelo’s David, on the grounds that the image was “pornographic.” I think the teacher also made a pedagogical mistake because she felt compelled to tell the students that the image was “not-pornographic,” which only drew attention to the nudity and accelerated the snowball—especially in the current political environment. (Speaking from experience: I assign material with nudity and sex in it in a college setting, but don’t usually focus on those aspects, except one semester a couple years back when I fumbled my discussion of The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break in class, which led a disgruntled student to accuse me of assigning “pornography” to the class in the course evaluations.) Dan Kois in Slate has an interview with the chair of the school’s board in which he admits that the problem is that Michelangelo included the naught bits, in so many words. It is almost as though the people most interested in “Classical Education” want nothing of the sort, but use it to give cover for a desire to impose their own small-minded world view on everyone else.
  • Frustrated with book bans, a Utah parent challenged school libraries including the bible, not on separation of church and state grounds, but because the book contains numerous lewd and “pornographic” episodes. Which, yes.
  • Ibram X. Kendi has a piece in The Atlantic about how “intellectual” (like “academic”) is a term often coded traditional and conservative in ways that support the white status quo, writing “Intellectual neutrality of the sort pushed by those wishing to create a veil of historical amnesia that allows bigotry to endure.” I have seen some fair critiques of this piece that Kendi is creating something of a straw man that casts him as the first “non-neutral” public intellectual (Howard Zinn’s autobiography is titled You can’t be Neutral on a Moving Train, for crying out loud), but I think there is something deeper to the issues that he’s pointing at, both in the sense that his antiracism is a re-articulation of Zinn’s thesis and because the age of social media is creating a crisis of identity for the public intellectual. I’m not entirely satisfied with Kendi’s answer, but he’s asking an important question.
  • The Guardian has a piece focusing on the Met Museum’s acquisition practice and their ties to looting. The article uses the Met as a jumping-off point to a larger conversation about ethical museum collecting and the repatriation of artifacts.
  • Jason Kehe in Wired has a curious profile of Brandon Sanderson in which he profiles the author seemingly determined to answer the questions of whether Sanderson is a “good writer” and if the answer is “no” (as Kehe seems pre-determined to answer) why is he so dang successful without being a household name. The profile is strange for a bunch of reasons, not only because he seems disappointed by the lack of story that he found in reporting the piece (as Sanderson pointed out on Reddit), but also because the essay is laced with belittling commentary about Utah food, some Mormon cracks, and befuddlement at the people who like Sanderson’s books. I (and, frankly, Sanderson) will be happy to tell you that the strength of his books is not the style of his prose, but the books often contain thematic elements (Mormon, yes, but also more broadly human) with more heft than Kehe credits and given that best-seller lists are always filled with lists of reliable and entertaining books that are not lyrically-crafted makes the framing of the article about whether Sanderson baffling choice in its own right.
  • In Politico, a piece profiling The Federalist Society, detailing a worrying trend that I have also seen floating around online: skepticism about democracy. In this case it is not only Democratic victories, but also a disdain for Trumpism that drives the shift.
  • Ron DeSantis asked state lawmakers to allocate $100 million to the budget for the “State Guard,” a unit supplemental to the State National Guard for use at the discretion of governor. But he is also proposing to arm this force and grant them police authority beyond how other states use equivalent units.
  • The latest in strong-arm political tactics, an Indian court sentenced Rahul Gandhi, an MP and opposition leader, to two years in prison for defamation, based on a speech at a political rally in which he quipped that there are many corrupt Modis in India, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The case was brought by another politician from the ruling party, Purnesh Modi, who claimed that the statement defamed the “Modi community” (there is no community named Modi).
  • A piece from NPR about how Silicon Valley Bank’s reliance on the usually-secure Federal Bonds to cover its assets became a liability over the last year.
  • Starting April 1, Twitter is phasing out legacy verified status, while also allowing subscribers to hide their blue check marks of shame.

Album of the Week: Dessa, Parts of Speech (2014)

Currently Reading: S.A. Chakraborty, The Adventures of Amina al-Sirafi, Emma Southon, Agrippina, Salman Rushdie, Midnight’s Children

It has been a long week.
My wife informs me that this picture captures our respective personalities. I look tired and resigned, while Merlin is taking up as much space as possible in an attempt to be cute.

Elder Race

It’s always a shock, when I look on them the first time after waking. I forget how their stock and mine have diverged since the first colony ships left Earth. She is closer to baseline than I, but then the second great rise of Earth culture was one of grandiose ambitions and a refusal to accept limits, even the limits of human form. I am much altered from my ancestors, within and without, and these post-colonial natives have changed little.

Nyrgoth Elder was seven feet tall, gaunt, clad in slate robes that glittered with golden sigils, intricate beyond the dreams of tailors. Lyn imagined a legion of tiny imps sewing that rich quilted fabric with precious metal, every tiny convolution fierce with occult meaning.

Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Elder Race belongs to a long tradition of Science Fiction that doubles as speculative anthropology, and this book would be right at home among the Hainish novels by this sub-genre’s master, Ursula Le Guin.

The book opens with a chapter told from the point of view of Lynesse Fourth Daughter, the younger daughter from the ruling house of the small kingdom of Lannesite who has taken it upon herself to seek out the sorcerer Nyrgoth Elder in his isolated tower in order to invoke an ancient compact that he would help in a moment of need. Her mother might not be moved to act, but a threat is indeed upon the world.

The second chapter introduces the central conceit of the novel.

The ancient being Lynesse calls Nyrgoth Elder is a man named Nyr Illim Tevitch, an anthropologist and the last remaining member of Earth’s Explorer Corps on Sophos 4, part of a mission to study how the first wave of human colonists had evolved in the thousands of years since their departure from earth. As a good* anthropologist, Nyr commits himself to non-intervention, but that line becomes harder and harder to hold to through the lonely centuries, even with his Dissociative Cognition System—a technological device that allows him to set his feelings aside to deal with later—activited.

Both characters undergo the same set of developments, but their experience diverges quite dramatically, since, as Arthur C. Clarke’s third law goes, “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Nyr cannot explain his scientific understanding of the universe without Lynesse interpreting it as magic. Tchaikovsky’s achievement in the novel is to represent both the wonder and bafflement coming from both sides, especially in the chapter in the middle of the novel where both narrators relate the epic tale of the last time Nyr ventured from the tower, riding to war with Lynesse’s ancestor, at least in the version the Lynesse tells.

But where Lynesse is driven by her quest reminiscent of traditional fantasy stories with a young, naive protagonist, Nyr’s struggle is an interior one, against both the feelings of being an inadequate anthropologist since he is now intervening in the evolution of the subject population and the crushing loneliness of centuries isolated from every other human being.

“Forgive me, Elder. If not the monster, then there is some other foe in the world that causes you concern?” The thought was dire, and yet there was something weighing on him, and surely one did not become a great sorcerer without making great enemies.

And so she wanted to know why I looked sad, and I explained that it was basically a long-term mental state and that it was all under control, but that didn’t seem to be what she heard. And of course they don’t have a precise word for “clinical depression” or anything like that.

In contrast to these themes, the plot of Elder Race is quite simple. A quest pulls Nyr from his castle to investigate the rumors of an insidious plague that threatens life on the planet. He isn’t really supposed to intervene, but nevertheless agrees to help Lynesse. But the origin and nature of that threat, let alone any question of whether they are going to triumph, are not the focus of the book. It it is a perfectly competent plot, but one that does not go much for subtlety or misdirection. Instead, Tchaikovsky layers these two dissonant perspectives atop this simple narrative in order to explore more fundamental themes of human experience.

Elder Race is a short read (about 200 pages), and I loved every bit of it, enough so that I suspect that I will be seeking out his other work in the not-so-distant future.


My reading remains ahead of my writing about books. Since my last review post, I finished three books other than this one: Dan Saladino’s Eating to Extinction, a manifesto about the importance of biological diversity, Lee Child’s Tripwire, which is a perfectly competent thriller that shows every sign of Child’s formulaic process, and Abdulrazak Gurnah’s Afterlives, which was thoroughgoing Nobel fare: a family story that traces the consequences of colonialism in Tanzania before and after World War 1. Inspired by a run of recommendation requests (four in the past two weeks), I also just re-read Julie Schumacher’s Dear Committee Members.