My Writing Dashboard

I have three spreadsheets that I use to track different types of activities throughout the year, with creating the new sheet being part of my ritual for the new year. One tracks the books I read (in addition to tracking the books on Storygraph). One tracks my exercise habits. The third tracks my writing.

These sheets, including the manual upkeep, serve similar purposes. First and foremost, they provide accountability not only to track what I’m doing, but how. For instance, tracking different types of information about what I read has caused me to seek out and read books by a wider variety of authors than I did when I first started tracking this information. Similarly, the exercise data has evolved so that I can see my activities and I am able to hold myself accountable for a daily yoga practice. I also like entering the data manually because it means that I look at the information almost daily, and a few simple formulas can give me a snapshot of how I’m doing.

The system I developed for tracking my writing shows signs of having developed organically.

I started this spreadsheet in October 2017, several months removed from having completed my PhD and wanting something to hold myself accountable as I was starting to revise my dissertation and turn chapters or conference papers into journal articles. The core of my system developed at this point with two sets of columns. The first tracks my daily academic writing, which I defined as time with the academic work open on my computer (or printout), social media closed, and with no other distractions. This is of course not all of that goes into research, but it serves as a rough proxy for time spent in dedicated work.

The section for daily academic writing consisted of four columns, to which I added two columns a few years later. Thus, each row in this section has the date, day of week, the time that I worked, the number of minutes in that period, the project I worked on, and, if relevant, the number of words written. The last two sections also double as places where I can add notes about what I worked on that day (editing, drafted introduction, etc).

From the start I also had a second section that collected the total minutes written on a weekly basis, tracked by date, using the spreadsheet function to collect the sum from the daily section and a simple formula that converts that total into hours written. At the top of this column I keep a running tally of the total hours written and the average length of time I spent writing each week that year.

Writing spreadsheet, weekly section.

Starting in 2018, I added a third section where I track everything I produced in that year, in both the total and on a month-by-month basis. What gets tracked here has evolved over time, but generally includes everything from blog posts to reference letters to job applications to presentations. I don’t count all of these as “academic writing,” but this section serves as a snapshot of what I have done in a given year in terms of my academic and academic-adjacent work. This section thus proves useful for filling out annual reviews, for instance.

Screenshot of the monthly section of my writing dashboard.

I added the fourth and final section of this sheet in 2020. Functionally, this section is a key for the projects that I am working on, listing not only the name of the project, but also an abbreviation that I use in the daily-writing section, a due date, and a color-coding scheme that can tell me at a glance the status of each project. The color-coding is the latest addition to this sheet.

Screenshot of the “projects” section of my writing dashboard

Last week on Twitter I ended up in a conversation on Twitter about systems of tracking writing and accountability. I offered this system to someone asking how academics track their writing and one of the other participants in the conversation pushed me a little bit about whether this collected data is purely for accountability and, if so, what I’m holding myself accountable for, or whether it also has a diagnostic purpose.

To this point, I have mostly used this system for accountability, but only in the loosest of senses. My projects have largely been in various stages of revision since I started tracking this data, so word-counts are not the best way to assess progress. This is also just fine with me since raw word counts have never much worked with my process. Instead, my primary metric for tracking my writing is the time I spend doing it, and I have aspired to write for about an hour a day in the beliefs that writing a little bit every day will be better in the long run than writing in binges and that writing just a little bit most days will cause me to write for longer than the proscribed time on at least some of them. This aspiration has both been wildly successful and an utter failure. I have not averaged five hours of writing per week since the first three months that I tracked this data, at a time when I was teaching just one course, but most years I manage to average about four hours a week, albeit in more booms and busts than I’d like recently.

I don’t explicitly use this spreadsheet as a diagnostic tool. It serves this function in a passive way, in much the same way that I can get a sense of how my writing is going based on whether or not I am writing in this space. I do make notes to myself in the daily section, particularly when I have hit a wall, and I will do the same with the weekly section for weeks during which I’m sick or, for instance, if I got no writing done because I was in the middle of moving or going to a conference. The sheet for 2020 has a row that reads “NULL SET CRISIS.” In the past I have done somewhat minimal data analysis to see trends in my writing activity, but I didn’t find it that useful so I stopped.

In writing this post it has occurred to me that accountability and diagnostics would probably work better with an adjustment to the weekly section. The update I have in mind is to add two columns, one with a target for that week and the other being the time I spent writing in the week minus that target, thus giving me a snapshot of how I did relative to my expectations. These columns will also let me adjust my goals week-to-week based on what is happening with the rest of my schedule, hopefully making them more achievable (always my downfall in goal-setting) than holding to a single goal for every week.

However, as much as I started keeping this sheet because I wanted accountability and really like tinkering around with data in various aspects of my life, this system has also just served as a nice ritual around writing that reminds me that I have in fact done something even when it feels like that is not the case. I don’t know that I will ever go much beyond what I have now in terms of analysis, but it certainly helps me maintain what I hope is a healthy and productive writing practice.

First Day Fragments: Fall 2022

Each of the past four years I have written a post celebrating the start of the fall semester with quick hits on various topics that I’m mulling over going into the new academic year. You can find the earlier posts in the archive: 2021, 202020192018.

I spent most of this summer diligently making myself go out running several times a week. Like many of my summer goals this practice ended up being a mixed bag, and I ended up not hitting my arbitrarily-set target. Despite the aches and pains that have accompanied these runs, I have been pleased by my progress and consider this one of my best recent decisions. There is always another mile to run, just as there is always more that could be done. After a summer during which I neither got the rest I had hoped nor accomplished as much as I intended, it has been useful to just focus on the next step.

ΔΔΔ

The latest buzz about workplace culture is Quiet Quitting, aka working to contract. This is a radical concept that I have seen some of my friends who work in the UK talk about when they, *checks notes*, clock out for the weekend and take annual leave. In a general sense, this “trend” is a reminder that it often takes enormous amounts of uncompensated labor to make the current labor systems function.

This is no less true in higher education than anywhere else, and something that hits basically everyone involved. The diminishing portion of the overall faculty being tenure or tenure track means that the service burdens fall that much heavier on those who remain, while the low pay for adjuncts is sometimes justified by pretending that the hours spent working outside of the classroom don’t exist. At least in the former case there is a reasonable expectation that their job will remain semester after semester.

However, quiet quitting is especially disruptive in teaching. In some fields it means reclaiming one’s time from their employer, but in this one the consequences disproportionately affect the students. They might not exactly be customers, but they are paying for their education in some capacity, which is a difficult circle to square.

My situation is not nearly as bad as many people, and I have a department chair who is excellent about keeping most duties not in my contract off my plate. And yet, this trend of quiet quitting has been on my mind this last week of working (uncompensated) overtime to make sure that my courses were ready to go. Ultimately this is yet another reminder that the entire system needs to be reformed to make it more humane for everyone involved.

ΔΔΔ

One summer during college (summer 2007), I worked on the team that moved the college to a new learning management system. At one point we had a conversation about the functionality that allowed professors to track the time students spent on the website. As a student, I was stridently against making this function available to professors, or at least against highlighting it for them–I don’t actually recall the specific details of the discussion. My point at the time was that these tracking features were, but delicately, bullshit, and I didn’t want there to be any chance that such data would play a role in my grade when it provided, at best, a shoddy reflection of my engagement with the course.

I have modified my stance somewhat as a professor. I still strongly dislike the emphasis on time-on-task, even if I begrudgingly acknowledge that it can play a role in setting expectations. As for the LMS data, I never use it as a form of assessment but have found that I like having it as a diagnostic tool–one of several in my arsenal that can help me best help my students.

It was with this background that I read John Warner’s piece last week on the madness of productivity trackers. He excoriates these trackers as not only a bad way of assessing productivity, but also actively harmful to knowledge work that requires hours of work that can’t be tracked by these tools without rigging an artificial mechanism to keep the system occupied while you actually get the work done. As Warner puts it, ” we are more than our ability to produce according to metrics counted by an algorithm.” He also rightly points out how LMS policies in college can serve as a training ground to normalize this sort of surveillance. This makes me wonder whether the marginal benefit I gain in helping my students is worth contributing to our present dystopia.

ΔΔΔ

I found this semester to be particularly difficult to prepare for. In part my struggle was the growing pain of designing and preparing a new course that is unlike anything I have taught before while, simultaneously, having events conspire to keep me from get the amount of rest I had intended. Put simply, I was tired. But a substantial portion of my exhaustion was not so much physical as feeling emotionally drained from the fire hose of devastation that seems to be going on in the world, from historic drought to continuing pandemic, to vaccine denial bringing about the return of awful disease thought eliminated by modern technology, to the fever pitch of nasty politics, to the crisis of climate change. All systemic problems where the proposed solutions range from personal responsibility to nothing whatsoever. Not good.

In his book Radical Hope, Kevin Gannon writes about the importance of hope as a pedagogical obligation because this is not a job that one should do if they don’t have at least a glimmer of optimism about the future.

I spent most of this summer not feeling a whole lot of hope. I’m still not, in a lot of ways. But this is also not a job that one can do without hope and I often find that I can see that hope most clearly when I’m working with my students. This is very likely going to be a challenging semester, but one day into the semester and I can already start to see the glimmer of that hope rising like a phoenix from the ashes. The world might be burning, but that doesn’t mean we can just let it burn. Only by working together can we start to heal.

Production and Consumption

I have a friend from graduate school who lived in terror of one of our professors. I’m only exaggerating a little bit for effect. This professor had a reputation for being particular about grammar and style, and he regularly made graduate students go through each other’s reviews with, as he might say, a fine-tooth red pen. When you didn’t catch enough mistakes in each other’s work, it was an indication that you weren’t reading carefully enough. Sitting through these exercises could be deeply uncomfortable, but the pressure also forced you to become a better writer.

My friend dreaded these sessions, so you can imagine his terror when it came time to submit his thesis. He spent hour after hour combing through his work to root out every grammatical and stylistic misstep he could think of, fretting about what this professor might say. After my friend had passed on the day of his oral defense, that professor came up to him to point out an error on the cover page.

He had misspelled his name.

Not to minimize the stress my friend felt leading up to that moment, typos like these are functionally inconsequential. Even in published work, typographical errors say more about the process of production than they do about the author, and I am generally loathe to bring them up in book reviews unless there are an egregious number or they substantially affect the experience of reading the piece. Obviously, the goal is to have an error-free manuscript, but to typo is to be human.

I also have been thinking about these anxieties again with respect to a writing funk I have been in these past few weeks.

What happened, basically, is that as soon as I returned my copy-edited book manuscript I started to stumble across references to recent scholarship that I ought to have included. These are obviously more serious concerns than typos, but none of these pieces would fundamentally change the argument I make in the book so much as they would have added a bit more nuance to roughly five paragraphs and/or footnotes in a manuscript that eclipsed 100,000 words. And yet, coming across these citations triggered all of my anxieties about where I received my degree and working as an extremely contingent scholar for the last few years. As much as I stand by my work, I have recently been more concerned about how it’ll be received than excited that my first book has a preliminary release date.

(My partner has informed me that I’m not allowed to fret about how the book will be received until after it is released, at which time if the anxiety returns she will direct me to sleep on the porch.)

What I am wrestling with is the difference between consuming things and producing things. Consuming even the densest scholarship is relatively easy, given adequate time and determination. By contrast, producing things is hard. A short article could have taken the author months of reading or excavation, weeks of writing and rewriting, and several rounds of feedback from people at scholars, early readers, and referees. In other words, something that took half an hour to read very likely took the author weeks, and could have literally taken years, for the author to produce. Writing a book, I have found, only magnifies the asymmetry between these two processes.

This is neither a novel observation nor even the first time I have reflected on it. However, the stakes feel higher this time, both because carrying an extended argument across a book-length project requires wrangling many more threads than does making an argument in an article and simply because this is my first book project.

My book will not be perfect. Then again, neither are any of the books I have reviewed, and I have never reviewed a book I truly disliked—while some other books that I think are awful have received broadly positive reviews. All of this is to say that fixating on those handful of pages where I might have done a little more is distracting me from recalling the things that I think I did very well and the places where I think I am making important contributions.

But this anxiety has also had the insidious effect of pulling me away from doing other writing, even in this space. This is a problem because I have a variety of projects I need to finish, but, really, I’d just like to be able to focus on the process again. Perhaps reminding myself of the difference between producing and consuming will do the trick.

May Reading List and an update on my 2022 reading goal

Back in January I set out a goal to read one article every working day that was not explicitly linked to my research. The idea was that my academic reading had become too narrowly focused on books and thus that I was missing out on some of the richness of the field.

One article shouldn’t be too onerous, I thought. And yet, I found even one article increasingly unmanageable as the semester wore on, particularly when many of the articles that looked interesting (how I tended to choose what to read) were forty or more pages long—or, in some cases, required ILL requests to access them.

I had hoped that my energy for this project would return with the end of the semester, but the reality is that the start of my summer has been characterized by an all-consuming combination of busyness and torpor brought on by the exhaustion of the semester. The five articles I read in May (listed below) turned out to be the last gasps of my semester routine. While I have made good a good start on other reading goals, I have yet to read a single article in June.

In the spirit of doing less, along with a number of more pressing tasks on my to-do list, I am putting this project on hold for the remainder of this summer and will revisit it in the new semester. In the meantime, I’ll keep tracking what I read and consider anything from this summer bonus.

The May List

  • Scott Lawin Arcenas. “The Silence of Thucydides.” TAPA 150 (2020): 299–332.
  • Mira Green. “Butcher Blocks, Vegetable Stands, and Home-Cooked Food: Resisting Gender and Class Constructions in the Roman World.” Arethusa 52, no. 2 (2020): 115–32.
  • Alexandra Bartzoka. “The Vocabulary and Moments of Change: Thucydides and Isocrates on the Rise and Fall of Athens and Sparta.” Pnyx 1, no. 1 (2022): 1–26.
  • David Morassi. “War Mandates in the Peloponnesian War: The Agency of Athenian Strategoi.” GRBS 62, no. 1 (2022): 1–17.
  • Morgan E. Palmer. “Time and Eternity: The Vestal Virgins and the Crisis of the Third Century.” TAPA 150 (2020): 473–97.

The End of Burnout

Many authors tell people who already feel worn out and ineffectual that they can change their situation if they just try hard enough. What’s more, by making it individuals’ responsibility to deal with their own burnout, the advice leaves untouched the inhumane ethical and economic system that causes burnout in the first place. Our thinking is stuck because we don’t recognize how deeply burnout is embedded in our cultural values. Or else we’re afraid to admit it. Insofar as the system that works people to the point of burnout is profitable, the people who profit from it have little incentive to alter it. In an individualistic culture where work is a moral duty, it’s up to you to ensure you’re in good working order. And many workers who boast of their hustle embrace that duty, no matter the damage it does. In a perverse way, many of us love burnout culture. Deep down, we want to burn out.

I resemble this statement, and I don’t like it.

By the definitions established in Jonathan Malesic’s recent book The End of Burnout, I have never burned out—at least not completely. I have never reached a point of absolute despair that rendered me incapable of going on, which, along utter exhaustion and reduced performance, marks burnout. The other two, however…

I wouldn’t say that I worked hard in high school, at least on the whole. There were projects that I worked at and if something interested me I would work hard, but not so much overall. Midway through my undergraduate career something snapped. Seemingly overnight I became a dedicated, if not efficient student. I divided everything in my world into “productive” activities and unproductive ones and aspired to spend my waking time being as productive as possible. School work obviously counted as productive, but so too did exercise and investing time in my relationships. Spending time not doing things was deemed unproductive.

At first this was innocuous enough. I was young and productive time included fun things, right? My numerous and varied interests led to me to do all sorts of things and I was determined to do them all. By the time the second semester of senior year rolled around this was almost a mania: I was working, running a club, taking a full course load, working on two research projects, and auditing extra classes that just looked interesting to me, as well as exercising and generally spending time on the aforementioned relationships.

At a time when the stereotypical college student develops a case of senioritis, going through the motions while looking forward what was next, I somehow managed to define sleep as “not productive.”

Seriously.

I cringe thinking about it now, but I went through most of a semester averaging about three hours of sleep a night. I don’t think I ever pulled an all-nighter, but most nights I only got one or two hours, going to bed around midnight, getting up at 1:30 so I could grab coffee and food before the late night place closed, work until the gym opened, exercise, shower, go to class, and then either go do homework or go to my shift at work. I would get eight hours or so on Fridays after work and whatever recreational activities I had planned. Several people that I know of had conversations about when I was going to collapse, though not within earshot. It was bad. Trust me when I say that you shouldn’t do this.

According to the journal I kept at the time, under an April entry titled: “I guess I did need to sleep,” I slept for 13 hours straight.

I have never done something this self-destructive since, but there have been numerous times that I have edged in that direction.

  • The year after college I ended up working up to 90 hours a week, often for weeks at a time without a day off until I just couldn’t physically keep it up, at one point sleeping for more than 12 hours and forcing myself to take days off, even if the nature of the job made that difficult.
  • I worked almost 30 hours a week on top of my school responsibilities (a “full” course load and grading for a class) while completing my MA.
  • I nearly lost snapped while completing the work for one of the toughest seminars I took in grad school the week that I was also taking my comprehensive exams.
  • Another semester, while cobbling together jobs as an adjunct, I took on so much work (six classes, one of which was nearly twice as much work as I thought when I accepted it) that I had to stop writing entirely just to stay on top of the teaching.
  • The semester after that I developed (probably anxiety-induced) GERD and broke out in hives.
  • I frequently have to remind myself that taking one day off a week is okay, leave alone two. At least I usually sleep 7–8 hours a night these days.

Lest it sound like I’m bragging, these are not badges of honor. They are symptoms of the perverse relationship with work that Malesic describes, wedded with ambition and an anxiety oscillates between imposter syndrome and a deep-seated fear that I’ll once again become someone who does nothing if I let up even a little. The worst part: my behavior place within systems that celebrate discipline, but it was almost entirely self-inflicted.

However, I have never burned out like Jonathan Malesic.

Malesic had achieved his dream of becoming a tenured professor of religion and living the life filled with inspirational conversations with young people that he imagined his own college professors had lived. But that life wasn’t as great as he imagined. His students were apathetic, the papers uninspired and, at times, plagiarized. There were meetings and committees, and his wife lived in a different state. In short, the job didn’t live up to his expectations, which, in turn, caused his life to fall apart. His job performance lagged. He snapped at students. He drank too much and found himself incapable of getting out of bed. And so, eventually, he quit.

The End of Burnout is an exploration of the forces that caused his disillusion with his job and possible solutions to escape it. Put simply, Malesic’s thesis is that two features of the modern workplace cause “burnout.”

  1. People derive personal meaning and worth from their jobs.
  2. There is a gulf between the expectations and reality of those jobs.

That is, there is a broad expectation in the United States that your job determines your worth to society. This is obviously not true, but it is signaled in any number of ways, from making health insurances a benefit of employment, to looking down on “low status” jobs like food service, to the constant expectation that you ought to be seeking promotion or treating yourself like an entrepreneur. But if your worth is wrapped up in your job, then you might enter with a certain set of expectations that are out of sync with the conditions—doctors who want to heal people and end up typing at a computer all day, or a professor who got into teaching because of Dead Poet’s Society and ends up teaching bored, hungover students in general education classes. On top of it all, the responsibility for “solving” the issue is then passed on to the worker: you’re just not hustling hard enough. Have you tried self-care?

The End of Burnout is a thought-provoking book. Malesic examines the deep historical roots of phenomena that might today be called burnout, discusses the pathology of an ambiguous phenomenon that is likely overused, often pointing to acute exhaustion rather than true burnout, and explores how social pressures (e.g. the moral discourse that equates work with worth) exacerbate the phenomenon before turning to alternate models of work and human dignity.

I picked up the end of Burnout for a few reasons.

Most obvious, perhaps, is my toxic relationship with work, as outlined above, to the point where I thought that I had burned out on multiple occasions. Based on the descriptions Malesic provides, I was usually acutely exhausted rather than truly burned out, with the result that, at least so far, I have always been able to bounce back with a few weeks or months of rest.

(The one exception might be the restaurant work straight out of college, but even that did not stop me from working in another franchise in the same chain for two more years while attending school.)

Cumulative exhaustion can lead to burnout, but I came away unconvinced that I have even really been walking down that path. I have been frustrated, of course, and can tell that I am creeping toward exhaustion when I start excessively doom-scrolling on Twitter, but I did not relate to the sheer disillusionment Malesic described. When I have considered other employment options over the past few years, it has always been because of a dearth of jobs.

The main difference, at least to this point, is that I have never viewed this job through rose-colored glasses. Writing about history is something I see as a vocation, but I have approached the teaching and associated work as a job, albeit one that aligns with those other aspects of my life and thus is more enjoyable than some of the others I have had.

At the same time, I have noticed a shift in my relationship to hustle culture now that I am in my mid-30s. I still work hard and have certain ambitions, but increasingly, they are around finding ways to spend my time reading, writing about things I find interesting and important—and having employment with enough security, money, and free-time to do that.

Likewise, the idea of treating oneself as an entrepreneur, which Malesic identifies as an element connecting worth to employment, has always left a sour taste in my mouth. When people tell me that I could (or should) open a bakery, I usually shrug and make some polite noises. I have managed a restaurant in my life and have very little interest in doing so again. I bake because I like the process and enjoy cooking for people I like, not because I want to turn it into a business with all of the marketing, bookkeeping, and regulations that would entail.

(I have also considered trying to turn my writing into a subscription business, but I find that incompatible with the writing I do here. If I made a change, it would involve some sort of additional writing with a regular and established schedule—say, a monthly academic book review for a general readership with a small subscription fee designed to cover the cost of the book and hosting. A thought for another day.)

However, I also picked up The End of Burnout because I am worried about the effect that this culture has on my students. Nearly every semester I have one or more students who report losing motivation to do their work. This past semester one student explained it as a matter of existential dread about what he was going to do with his degree, but it could just as easily be anxiety or concern over climate change or the contemporary political culture or school shootings.

I have long suspected what Malesic argues, that burnout is systemic. In a college context, this is why I get frustrated every time a conversation about mental health on campus takes place without addressing those systemic factors. Focusing on the best practices and workload for an individual class is (relatively) easy, but it is much harder to account for how the courses the professor is teaching or the students are taking interact with each other. I am absolutely complicit in this problem. One of my goals for next academic year is to reexamine my courses because the reality is that the most perfect slate of learning assessments is meaningless if the students end up burned out. I can’t fix these issues on my own, but Malesic’s book brought into greater focus why I need to be part of the solution for my own sake and my students’. I don’t ever want to let one of my students make the mistakes I did when I was their age, which probably explains why the most common piece of advice I give is “get some sleep,” and I can’t help them if I am also in crisis.

The back part of The End of Burnout turns to possible solutions. Perhaps unsurprisingly given his background as a professor of religion, this discussion frequently focused on groups with a Christian bent. He spends a chapter, for instance, talking about how various Benedictine communities apply the Rule of St. Benedict to tame the “demon” of work. Some groups strictly follow the Rule, limiting work to three hours so that they can dedicate the rest of their lives to what really matters, prayer. Other groups, like several in Minnesota, were less rigid, but nevertheless used similar principles to divorce work and worth, and allowing one’s service to the larger community change with time.

The other chapter in this section was more varied, and included useful discussion from disability activists, but it also featured a prominent profile of Citysquare, a religious-based Dallas non-profit that uniquely humane policies around work expectations and support for its staff. These examples sat awkwardly with my agnostic world view, as someone who believes that we should be able to create a better society without religion, and particularly without Christianity. However, Malesic’s underlying point is not that we ought to all follow the Rule of St. Benedict. Rather, he makes a case that each profile in its own way can help imagine a culture where the value of a person is not derived from their paycheck (or grade).

To overcome burnout, we have to get rid of the [destructive ideal of working to the point of martyrdom] and create a new shared vision of how work fits into a life well lived. That vision will replace the work ethic’s old, discredited promise. It will make dignity universal, not contingent on paid labor. It will put compassion for self and others ahead of productivity. And it will affirm that we find our highest purpose in leisure, not work.

Malesic’s vision here is decidedly utopian and hardly new, and his warnings about the consequences of the automating workplace are a modern echo of 19th century choruses. But the ideals he presents are worth aspiring to nonetheless. As long as we work within a depersonalizing, extractive system that treats people as interchangeable expenses against the company’s bottom line, then that system will not only continue to grind people down and spit them out, but also contribute to nasty practices elsewhere in society like treating food service workers with contempt. Severing the connection between personal worth and paid work won’t solve every problems, but it is a good place to start.

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