Thinking Through Course Design

On my ever-growing to-do list for this summer is thinking through the design of three new (to me) classes for next year. The most imminent—an interdisciplinary seminar on food and drink in the ancient mediterranean that I’m offering in the fall—is, ironically the one I am least worried about of the three. Its proximity means that I have already given the course a decent amount of thought, have already ordered a course reader, and have a good sense of the outcomes I am expecting the students to come away with.

I am having more trouble envisioning these same features of the upper-level survey courses on Rome and ancient Persia set to run in the spring semester—for not entirely dissimilar reasons.

By its next iteration, my Archaic and Classical Greek History course will likely reach a rough equilibrium that takes students through three interlocking units. The first one will deal with an introduction to Ancient Greece, its place in the mediterranean world, and social and political institutions down to roughly 500; the second unit engages with war, empire, and imperial culture down to roughly 404, and then the third unit takes a thematic approach to society and culture, with a focus on the fourth century (300s) down to the foundation of the Hellenistic World.

No course of this sort can take a truly catholic approach to a society, but I have made deliberate choices in this course to generally eschew a blow-by-blow recounting of events like the Peloponnesian in favor of leading students through a sequence that gives them a broad understanding of major issues in Greek history. However, what made this most possible was limiting the chronology of the course to a totally manageable 500 years.

By contrast, my Roman history course is going to cover a minimum of 1,000—and maybe more. I am also the sole ancient historian in a small department and responsible for teaching a number of other courses means that I can’t divide “Roman History” into a two or three semester sequence.

And yet, despite these issues, the Roman history course is the less troublesome of the two. I know the mandate, the broad arc, and a lot of the resources that I can use. I am also brushing up on scholarship and have several syllabus models that I think will work for what I envision.

I am facing more foundational issues in coming to my Persian history course. When I first imagined teaching such a course, I envisioned a deep-dive into Achaemenid Persia as a counterpoint to my Greek history course. It would start with the regal traditions of Western Asia, tackle dynastic and institutional issues, explore the historiographical issues of the many topics that are filtered through a Greek lens, and engage with the diverse cultures that flourished under Persia before culminating with the sticky issues of Alexander’s conquest. I even had the core textbook picked out, Maria Brosius’ A History of Ancient Persia: The Achaemenid Empire.

I absolutely course teach the course this way. There is more than enough material to fill a full semester, and I left the course description flexible for a reason.

However, I also course teach the course across three units, each covering a different ancient Persia—Achaemenid, Asakid Parthian, and Sasanian. Doing the course this way would cut into the amount of time that could be given over to the study, replacing them instead with themes of continuities, historical memory, and the diverse subject populations.

While I have a gut feeling that the latter approach would better fit in the cycle of courses that I teach, I also have some misgivings.

First, it would require significantly more preparation on my part simply by dint of my being less familiar with these empires than Achaemenid Persia. This is, of course, not a deal-breaker, and I have begun collecting resources in case this is the direction I end up going. My reading list as it currently stands can be found below, though I will need to supplement it with edited collections as well.

Second, while there are good options for books to use for Achaemenid history or Sasanian history (and, to a lesser extent Parthian history), there are to my knowledge no good options for resources that cover all three. Thus, a course of this model taught by Touraj Daryaee, whose history of the Sasanian Empire is an early leader for one that I might use, requires students to purchase four books—Ferdowsi’s Shahnehmah, histories of the Achaemenid and Sasanian empires, and a book of sources on Zoroastrianism—and compresses the Parthian empire into one week out of ten, just after the midterm exam.

My concern is that I am extremely sensitive to the price of my courses, almost to a fault. I can point out multiple occasions where I opted to assign an open-access version of a resource that I did not particularly like rather than ask my students to purchase yet another book and generally not assigning complete monographs in order to keep the cost of my course to roughly $50 dollars worth of materials. I was reminded by colleagues that textbooks in STEM routinely run into the hundreds of dollars, so I should not feel guilty if my courses occasionally creep north of $100 as this one is threatening to do, but I still find myself wrestling with these decisions.

I have a little bit of time, at least, and all of these are reasons to be working on course planning so far in advance. Both of these syllabuses will be ongoing projects this summer, so I welcome suggestions or recommendations.

An Ancient Persia Reading List (post Achaemenid)

  • Matthew Canepa, The Two Eyes of the Earth (California 2009)
  • Uwe Ellerbrock, The Parthians (Routledge 2021)
  • Parvaneh Pourshariati (ed.) Decline and Fall of the Sasanian Empire (I.B. Tauris 2008)
  • M. Rahim Sheyegan, Aspects of History and Epic in Ancient Iran (Harvard 2012)
  • M. Rahim Sheyegan, Arsacids and Sasanians (Cambridge 2011)
  • Touraj Daryaee, Sasanian Iran 224–651 CE: Portrait of a Late Antique Empire (Mazda 2008)
  • Touraj Daryaee, Sasanian Persia: The Rise and Fall of an Empire (I.B. Tauris, 2009)
  • Sauer Eberhard (ed.), Sasanian Persia: Between Rome and the Steppes and Eurasia (University Press, 2017)
  • Marek Jan Olbrycht, Early Arsakid Parthia (Brill 2021)
  • Vesta Sakhosh Curtis, Michael Alram, Touraj Daryaee (edd.), The Parthian and Early Sasanian Empires (Oxbow 2016)

The Do-Less Summer

A month or two ago I was having dinner with my partner and my department chair. For a whole variety of reasons, everyone in my department had been having a grueling semester and my chair has repeatedly encouraged me to set reasonable boundaries. At some point the conversation turned to summer plans.

When I declared that my intention was to do as little as possible this summer, my chair turned to my partner and asked, “do you believe him?”

My partner laughed.

Of course, they were right to be skeptical.

One consequence of blending my hobbies with my employment is that there are fewer clear boundaries between work and rest. I can read a book on the history of eating in the United States like I did this weekend because I’m interested in the topic and one part of my brain will be mining the pages for anecdotes or chapters that I can use in a class next semester. The fact that I continue to treat my research as a second job because of the nature of my employment also means that these “off” months are prime research periods and the breathing space of summer is ideal for class prep.

This happens almost every summer. Class lets out and the weekly rhythm that carried me through the semester vanishes, leaving me feeling adrift and struggling to create a new routine. The nature of my contingent employment the past few years contributed a healthy dose of anxiety that cut into my rest as well.

Despite my ambitious goal of doing nothing this summer I am finding that my schedule is rapidly filling up. For instance, in the next month or so I am expecting to:

  1. Complete some horribly overdue work that I am deeply ashamed to still have outstanding.
  2. Read Erik Jensen’s The Greco-Persian Wars: A Short History with Documents and write a book review of the same.
  3. Spend a week as a reader for AP World History.
  4. Write and deliver a conference paper on Ionians on the Sicilian Expedition.
  5. Receive copy-edits on my book manuscript.
  6. Complete the two-week digital pedagogy training that I started last Thursday.

And these tasks don’t include several article and chapter proofs that I am expecting, probably a bit later in the summer, or various goals I have with respect to preparing my courses for the fall semester. Maybe this is why a little voice spent the entire weekend insisting that the summer was already over.

The languid pace of summer provides a stark contrast to the work I need to do. The trick will be finding a balance that embraces the rest encouraged by languidity with the discipline of routines and the flexibility provided by having few scheduling commitments.

Toward this end, here are my goals for the next few months beyond what I listed above.

First, I am hoping to recharge my mental batteries by spending more time reading this summer, both because I have found that reading is the part of writing that gets most squeezed during the year and because I am teaching several classes next spring that will require me to brush up on the topic. Toward the second end, I compiled a list of Roman history books to work through this summer. I am making good progress on this list, having already finished Jared Benton’s The Breadmakers and nearly finished Kathryn Lomas’ The Rise of Rome. The length of that list and one on of volumes on Persian history that I am going to compile this week is going to cut into my academic reading time, but I am also looking forward to digging into James Romm’s The Sacred Band and Jennifer Finn’s Contested Pasts, as well as Francis-Noel Thomas and Mark Turner’s Clear and Simple as the Truth. We’ll see what I get to after that.

On the non-academic front, I am less structured about my reading roadmap and will invariably read more than these, but I am particularly looking forward to reading Anthony Doerr’s Cloud Cuckoo Land, Mick Herron’s Slow Horses, Kapka Kassabova’s Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe, and Ken Liu’s Speaking Bones. My current read is also worth mentioning with these, Agélica Gorodischer’s Kalpa Imperial: The Greatest Empire That Never Was, translated by Ursula Le Guin.

Second, in the realm of teaching, I am aiming to convert several of my classes to Specs Grading. I have a rough outline for what each class will look like with this, but part of the system requires clearly connecting grades as determined by detailed rubrics to specific learning outcomes. This means spending time drafting each of those syllabus components so that when the calendar flips to August I am not caught with nothing ready. For a secondary goal, I should also draft a rough syllabuses for the spring to save myself some headaches later.

Third, no summer to-do list without be complete without at least a nod to hobbies. I have taken up running again and hope to make this a thing. Beyond that, I have two concrete plans: to finally crack open the Arkham Horror card game Edge of the Earth campaign and to fulfill my resolution for this year of spending more time with my burgeoning photography hobby, probably with editing software and a storage and sharing platform (either Google photos or Flickr—I am currently doing research to choose which).

That’s it. Easy-peasy. Actually, when I list everything out like this it seems like a lot—and not for the first time; I have a long history of setting entirely unreasonable expectations for what can be done in a given period of time. Then again, except for the tasks in the enumerated list above there will be little consequence if I don’t accomplish all of these goals, and that should be the spirit of the do-less summer.

Three Things of Spring 2022

Grades are submitted, another semester is in the books—along with my first year at Truman State.

Frankly, that end couldn’t come soon enough. A bunch of factors colluded to make the first two months of the semester one of the busiest stretches of my life. Most of that busy was good, but it also meant that I spent the back half of the semester—a period during which I organized a speaker coming to campus and prepared an hour-long talk for a student group, on top of teaching and meetings—triaging my commitments and trying to avoid burning out. I don’t recommend letting things get this busy.

With the semester just several days in the rear-view mirror and aided by an early heat wave that sent the temperatures into the 90s, I am starting to settle into a summer routine. I will have a post in the coming days that lays out some goals, but, first, I want to take a moment to survey the semester that just ended.

As you might guess from the title, I have three major thoughts.

First, I once again find myself considering burnout.

More than once in the past few months I asked myself how much of my exhaustion was particular to this semester, how much of it was residual anxiety from years spent as a part-time adjunct, and how it was the accretion of stress from teaching for two years during a global pandemic.

The answer, of course, is “all of the above.”

In my muddled thoughts from last semester, I framed this question in light of compassionate pedagogy and idly wondered whether flexible policies inadvertently prompts students to devalue a course. Despite those questions, my “flex” late policy that asked students to either submit their work by the time a checkpoint came due or fill out a form that would record their extension was easily one of the most popular course policies I have ever come up with so I naturally rolled it over to similar effect this semester. Despite my misgivings, my students reported exactly what I hoped, that this policy allowed them the flexibility to manage their schedules and do their best work. Transitioning to a specs grading system this fall will require some slight tweaks because there will no longer be points to deduct for late assignments, but the framework of this policy will be fixture of my courses going forward.

The popularity of this policy speaks to the stress that the students are facing and I came out of this semester more convinced than ever that the problems with burnout are structural. No amount of self care will resolve these issues and reminders to be mindful like the one I received last week from a textbook publisher border on the farcical.

In his recent book Four Thousand Weeks, Oliver Burkeman argues time management gurus have been focusing on exactly the wrong message. Basically, he says, we have a finite amount of time, which necessarily means that we will not be able to do everything in a single lifetime. Trying to do more by working more efficiently or cutting into time for rest will detract from the experience of all of the activities rather than lead feelings of accomplishment. His argument, then, is that we should do less so that the activities that we do do become more meaningful.

Burkeman was not writing about higher education specifically, but there is a useful lesson here. Bill Caraher on his blog has written a good bit about “slow” as an ideal and mentioned his concerns with the workload expected of both graduate and undergraduate students. I fear that I contributed a little bit to the heightened expectations such that I am going to scale back a little bit in the fall. At the same time, this is not a problem that I can solve on my own.

Second, this semester I optimistically incorporated peer review into several of my courses. My students had to bring paper drafts to class and submit a copy to Blackboard. We talked about papers and revision before the first peer review day, and I had hoped that the course material would give the reviewers the content background to critique the papers, while seeing different approaches to similar material, repeated practice at reviewing, and my feedback would make them better writers and reviewers over the course of the semester.

In short, this part of the course was a spectacular failure.

I should qualify that statement. Some of the students became pretty good reviewers and saw dramatic improvement in their work, but, for every one of those, there were at least two for whom it didn’t work. The causes varied. Some routinely brought such scant “drafts” that their peers had almost nothing to critique. Others reported only receiving grammar and spelling comments. Still others reported deep-seated anxiety over giving sharp feedback and being unwilling or unable to look at the comments. And those were substantive problems before considering that peer-review day saw by far the lowest attendance rates.

The requirement that drafts be submitted to Blackboard also allowed me to give some feedback at an early stage, but even minimal guidance magnified my workload to an unmanageable extent.

I think that peer review can work, but I need to come up with a new approach because what I did this semester ain’t it. I suspect that it would require significantly more time training students to give good feedback and reiterating the purpose of the exercise to make them more receptive to the comments. Guiding students to become better readers would also help, but there were enough different problems that I doubt this is the sole or even primary cause. I don’t want to abandon the peer-review entirely, but the question is how to make it useful.

Third, something of a PSA: when you have two assignments due close together, the one that needs timely feedback should be due first.

For reasons that defy understanding I reversed that order this semester and spent several weeks in grading purgatory as a result. I hadn’t finished grading the first set when the second arrived and required immediate attention, causing the first batch to languish for far longer than I intended. Simply changing the order in which these arrived would have made for a more satisfactory experience for everyone involved.

April Reading List

Surprise, there isn’t one!

I am actually not surprised by this development. I have tracked my reading by month going back to 2013 and, on average, April is my second-worst month for reading, ahead of only October. April tends to be when a lot of work obligations come due and so I find myself both scrambling for time and utterly exhausted. This year was no different and my ambitious reading goal fell by the wayside. As penance, I have posted a cat picture to conclude this post.

Now that the semester is winding down, I have already resumed progress toward my goal for May. Although I am hoping to use this summer mostly for rest and recovery (more on this in a future post), I also expect that the more languid patterns of summer will provide ample opportunity to read.

Previous months: January, February, March

Merlin and Nimueh demonstrating proper resting form.

A family and social history of bread in the United States

A couple weeks ago, one of my students invited me to give a presentation on sourdough bread to a club she’s involved in, which I did last night I decided to script part of my talk so that I didn’t just blabber in a million different directions.

Below the jump is the transcript of most of that scripted portion, which I called “A family and social history of bread in the United States.” I lightly edited the script to remove the presentation cues and moved forward a paragraph on yeast culture from later in the talk. Enjoy.

Continue reading A family and social history of bread in the United States

An homage to the professors I aspire to be

Earlier today I had the opportunity to attend a retirement celebration for the two professors who are probably most responsible for setting me on the path I have been on for the last fifteen years. Despite my generally reserved demeanor, I am pathologically incapable of keeping my mouth shut and so raised my hand to offer what was, in my humble opinion, a stream of gibberish. I had jotted down some notes, but they came out in a jumble. This is what I meant to say.

Dear Ann and Cheryl,

The two of you exemplify the professors I aspire to be.

I am sure that I learned something in your classes, but when I sit here now the content is secondary. I remember instead Cheryl’s laugh, bantering with Chris Farrell (back before he was Dr. Farrell) while snacking on bread and cheese, and, of course, Argos.

It is not that the content didn’t matter, but for both of you that was just one part of a college education. I would never have admitted it at the time, but I was overwhelmed by the transition from my rural Vermont high school to Brandeis—a nervous first-year who felt entirely unprepared for what was to come.

I found my mooring in Classics even as someone who came in thinking just about history and only belated made my way to the languages.

To this day, I don’t know what the two of your saw in me, but I am eternally grateful for whatever it was. You both patiently nurtured my growth through any number of slightly odd history-oriented papers on topics ranging from Roman Republican coinage to a calculation for the Roman grain trade to the Greek ἰδιώτης stemming from a question I had about Plato’s Apology—to say nothing about my massively unwieldy monstrosity of an undergraduate thesis. Midway through graduate school I developed a hobby of reading books on writing, but I still say that all of my foundational skills I learned from Cheryl, whose model I still use as something of a template for my own courses and assignments. When some of my classes require a specific citation style, I repeat something I remember Ann saying when she assigned something similar: it isn’t that this is the best style, but that is the style for this assignment and part of the exercise is learning to follow a citation style sheet.

But the classroom is just the tip of the iceberg. You are both the type of generous teacher and mentor that I aspire to be. Moments stand out like when Cheryl, unprompted, gave me a copy of a book that I still have on my shelf, or when she patiently listened to me work through the argument of an academic article by a leading scholar of Ancient Greece that I vehemently disagreed with only to offer a quip, asking whether it was that scholar at the height of their powers or that scholar at the point of their career when they get published because of their name. It was pithier in the moment.

Then there was the time that I dropped in to talk about something and we got lost in conversation, at which point she looked up, exclaimed “oh crap,” and ran out the door because she had a class of first years who had been patiently waiting for more than fifteen minutes.

(I later told a student in the class to blame me.)

COVID notwithstanding, this is the sort of open-door office policy I aspire to—and I usually keep cookies there for anyone who visits me. I teach because I love what I study, but one of the lessons I try to impart to my students is that I am teaching whole people, not disembodied brains.

In this same vein, I am eternally grateful to Ann for a note she sent me the year after I graduated. I had applied to graduate school the year before and not gotten in anywhere, so I was managing a restaurant and contemplating another round of applications. The Classics Department was in danger at that moment and, yet, Ann wanted to bring me in on a developing personal issue so that she could complete my letters of recommendation before it left her indisposed. The next academic year I started graduated school at the University of Missouri.

How I went from that overwhelmed first-year struggling to write anything at all to someone with multiple publications, a book on the way, and the responsibility for training new generations of young people is beyond me, but I know that the guidance and support I received from the two of you was an essential part of that journey.

It has been a long time since Brandeis and nearly as long since I have even been to campus, but I often come back when I think about how I want to carry myself in- and outside the classroom. Brandeis—and the world—are a better place for all that you have done.

In the sincerest and simplest way I can say it: thank you.

March Reading List

Back in January I laid out an ambitious reading goal for 2022: one article per working day, and resolved to write a wrap-up monthly recap post for accountability. March proved a challenge for a whole host of reasons so the total is much lower than I would have liked. April is looking worse, if anything, but I’m hopeful that I can get back on track over the next week.

Without further ado here is the list, divided once more into my favorite articles (honorable mentions) and the rest of the list.

Honorable Mentions

  • Sofie Remijsen, “Only Greeks at the Olympics? Reconsidering the rule against non-Greeks at ‘Panhellenic’ Games,” C&M 67 (2019): 1–61.

The rest of the list

  • Marcaline J. Boyd, “Sleeping with the Tyrant: Thebe the Tyrannicide and the Death of Alexander of Pherae in Plutarch’s Pelopidas,” Histos 15 (2021): 131–49.
  • Peter A. O’Connell, “How Often Did the Athenian Dikasteria Meet? A Reconsideration,” GRBS 60, no. 3 (2020): 324–41.
  • Piotr Głogowski, “Cyrus the Younger and his Persians: the dynamics of power,” GRBS 60, no. 2 (2020): 165–91.
  • Elizabeth Carney, “Royal Macedonian Widows: Merry and Not,” GRBS 59 (2019): 368–96.
  • Sarah Morris and John Papadopoulos, “Of Granaries and Games: Egyptian Stowaways in an Athenian Chest,” Hesperia Supplements 33 (2004): 225–42.
  • Loren J. Samons II, “Herodotus on the Kimonids: Peisistratid Allies in Sixth-Century Athens,” Historia 66, no. 1 (2017): 21–44.
  • Anastasios Nikolaidis, “Revisiting the Pylos Episode and Thucydides’ ‘Bias’ Against Cleon,” C&M 69 (2021): 121–50.
  • Cinzia Bearzot, “Political Murder in Classical Greece,” Ancient Society 47 (2007): 37–61.
  • Timothy Sorg, “Agyrrhios Beyond Attica: Tax-Farming and Imperial Recovering in the Second Athenian League,” Historia 64, no. 1 (2015): 49–76.
  • Joshua D. Sosin, “Ransom at Athens ([Dem.] 53.11),” Historia 66, no. 2 (2017): 130–46.
  • Etka Liebowitz, “Female Monarchal Succession in Hellenistic and Jewish Society in Antiquity: Parallels and Contrasts,” Journal for the Study of Judaism 49, no. 1 (2018), 30–48.

Previous Months

January, February

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.

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)