The Altar of Academic Overproduction

Do publications define someone as an academic success? More to the point, do publications demonstrate one’s potential for scholarship?

These are both pressing questions for contingent faculty members who almost never have research as part of their contract and yet are assessed on their potential for research when being considered for tenure-track jobs. I have written here several times how I approached my research as a second job, though my current position allows me to integrate teaching and research even though the latter is not technically part of my contract.

With this in mind, one might ask when is the right time to publish. Job ads generally look for the potential for high-impact publishing, which should certainly include promising graduate students who have yet to publish anything, but it also might mean that because I just published my dissertation book and work on teaching contracts I might need to show some progress on my next book project before I’ll be seriously viable for research positions given that as soon as I am hired I am on a clock to finish the next thing or lose my job. My last book should prove that I can publish, but that track record is only good if it can support a trajectory toward future potential.

But the words that I often think about in those ads are “high impact.” These words mean different things to different people, and even more different things in different fields. When I was a newly-minted PhD my institution was just getting caught up with impact metrics, so it of course surprised me to learn that most history publications simply weren’t indexed at the institution. And probably for good reason. You can find impact metrics for classics journals, but this will only take you so far. According to one, the two journals with the two highest impact factors are Ancient Philosophy and the Journal of Roman Studies, neither of which are viable publication venues for my research, and I would dispute the quality of some of the other highly-ranked journals. This is not a field with Nature or The New England Journal of Medicine.

Moreover, I have heard differing opinions about when students ought to start publishing original research. I know of people who discourage junior graduate students from trying to publish prematurely. The work of publishing extend the time of completion for publications that might not move the needle in a job search at best, and, at worst, “immature” publications might attach the student’s name to subpar work. My advisor, by contrast, had me send off a revised version of a seminar paper as a second year MA student—a paper, I might add, that was duly rejected with a multi-page reviewer critique. I agreed with the rejection enough that I scrapped that paper and didn’t submit my own research again until I published a note with Classical Quarterly midway through my PhD that I had accepted with revisions upon first submission. I don’t personally subscribe a hard and fast rule, but, based on my own experiences, I generally think that students reach a point where their research is ready for publication later in graduate school than earlier.

Much like early-career graduate students, some undergraduates might have the command of both the primary evidence and scholarship to publish peer-reviewed scholarship and there are some fields where students can be sufficiently involved in research projects that their names end up on publications, but neither of these should be an expectation before graduate school. Learning how to do this work is literally one of the purposes of graduate school. Making admissions decisions based on these publications rewards students with structural advantages in their undergraduate institutions more than selecting students based on their research potential. No system will level the playing fields in this respect, but publications strikes me as a particularly insidious factor. Admittedly, I have not seen much evidence of this happening, but I am opposed to it in any field. Certainly, I would not have been admitted to graduate school if that were the expectation.

So you can imagine my reaction to this Pro Publica report on new companies like Scholar Launch designed to help get high school students published in “peer reviewed journals” by having them work with renowned scholars whose names are noticeably absent from the program forms that only list their academic rank and affiliation. All for the low, low fee of several thousand dollars.

The article opens with the story of a high school student who went through the program, a sophomore who explains that “Nowadays, having a publication is kind of a given.” Then comes a description of her project, a marketing strategy analysis for Chick-fil-A that was “published” on a journal’s online pre-print platform.

Schemes to get children into the “right” schools are nothing new, but I have to say that I prefer the old-fashioned grift like paying for a building or bribing the water polo coach to have your student be classified as a “recruit.” I find these programs much more insidious, by contrast. While those of us at most schools are hearing only bleak prognostications about the impending demographic cliff, the application numbers are soaring at the most elite schools, while only further fuels the aura of exclusivity. The result is programs like Scholar Launch that mask a pay-for-play system that rewards families with the means behind a cloak of merit all for a chance at getting access to the most elite schools.

In this arms race only the appearance of merit matters. Internships and educational opportunities are never going to be equally distributed, but I would never begrudge students legitimate opportunities for learning or engagement. After all, this is the premise behind taking a challenging course load and engaging in extra-curricular activities or internships. Publications, though, are fundamentally different from these other forms of engagement.

What is the point of a publication? Or, even more broadly, what is the point of writing?

To paraphrase Umberto Eco, the purpose of writing is to be read. Secondarily, to paraphrase John Warner, writing is a form of thinking. So you write to put your thoughts in order so that someone else may read them. Peer-reviewed academic articles are in their purest form a contribution to an ongoing discussion about a field of study. They are meant to be read, considered, and responded to by other people working or interested in the same field of study.

Whereas, the point of these publications is to be listed on the application, to give the appearance that your child has what it takes to “change the world” in some nebulous, ill-defined way because they were able to publish an article in high school. Who cares if anyone reads it? Or whether it is great? It was published in a “peer-reviewed” journal, which makes it sound substantial and scholarly, just like the journals that academics publish their work in. Never mind what “peer-reviewed” means for high school students or that these journals exist solely to showcase high school work.

I understand that both students and parents place an enormous importance on getting into the “right” school, by which they usually mean the most prestigious school that will unlock every door, but this attitude is deeply toxic. In addition to moving cycles of anxiety and burnout younger and younger, it internalizes two counter-productive ideas.

First, it underscores the false notion that students need to already have these skills and ideas. College, for instance, should be a time when students are developing many foundational skills. Setting an apparent expectation like this about what they should know creates an environment with heightened anxiety for students who think they’re behind frustration for students who discover a gap between what they think they know and how they perform in class.

Second is a sense that seeming is more important than being. If you seem smart or accomplished or charitable, then whether or not you are those things is almost besides the point. Obviously it is possible to wash out after gaining admission, but many of these systems are more set up to exclude people at the point of entry than to drive them out once they’re in. Thus being at the “right” school is more important than being at the school that will give you the best education. Besides, the former can be judge by the school’s prestige, while the latter can be hard to assess before you arrive on campus—or even until years after you graduate.

In truth, these paper mills are responding to a system that sacrifices at the altar of academic overproduction. A system that identifies publications as the highest virtue and often rewards short-term impact of ideas. And academic administration that would prefer to flatten the differences between fields so that the apples and oranges can be evenly judged as indistinct fruit pulp—how else can you compare scholars in one field where people write numerous co-authored publications based on lab work with those in a field where a productive scholar might put out a single sole-authored article a year and a book every few years? In this context it only to be expected that admissions officers might reward a student whose application shows that they already have a publication, irrespective of its topic or quality.

There is no easy panacea. These programs are a metastatic cancer that formed deep in how we assess academic success. But I also think that this makes it all the more important for people in a world increasingly defined by anxiety and burnout to collectively resist its acceleration. For academics to resist the cult of productivity, for students to focus on the process of learning over the appearance of achievement, for admissions officers to resist the allure of purchased credentials, and for numerous places in the wider culture to stop setting Harvard and other similarly exclusive schools as the benchmark for success in higher education.

Easier said than done.

One Year of Specs Grading: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Spring semester 2023 is in the books. It actually has been in the books for a few days, though I have spent the time since working on wrapping up its ragged ends.

In truth, this was a second consecutive brutally difficult semester, making the 2022/23 school year one of the most difficult of my career. In addition to a series of crises external to what happened in the classroom, I was also teaching three new classes: upper level surveys on Ancient Rome and Persia, and a first year seminar. The demographics of that first year seminar were particularly challenging such that I had to functionally re-write the syllabus midway through the semester and I had one student so difficult that I came to dread walking into that classroom.

I wrestled the semester into submission eventually. My Persia class might be my favorite class I have ever taught, in large part because of the mix of students, and my revised first year seminar syllabus along with a slightly different approach to discussion allowed my students to pick up on the themes and skills that are most important for the course. In each of these three classes I was also able to build trust with the students that we were able to largely weather the techpocalypse ransomware attack that took down the network two weeks before the end of the semester. The outpouring of comments from students in the last few weeks was enormously moving, but I also want to recognize how hard I had to work to get there.

However, by way of semester retrospective, I want to focus on one academic year using Specifications Grading. I adopted this system because it promised to make my life easier, and my spring changes like an UnGrading system to assess participation and taking attendance every day worked, but, one year in, I am left wondering whether a specs model is the right fit for most of my classes.

The Good

My favorite part of specs grading is not assigning grades to assignments. The obsession with grades is deeply rooted in students, but grades themselves are often a poor match for learning. Specifications, by contrast, clearly establishes my expectations and, at least in theory, gives the students guidance on how they can earn credit for an assignment. This is still a form of grading, but the expectations provide a framework within which the students can learn and my feedback can focus on whether the student has met the expectation for that assignment. Moreover, the grades are earned across categories, meaning that the students have to engage with each part of the course and the clear expectations for each grade tier can allow students to prioritize their efforts if, for instance, they have met the requirements for their target grade in my class and need to focus instead on passing a different one.

Moreover, by modifying the expectations up or down for either the overall grades or for individual assignments I can adjust what my expectations are for the students. Thus, when our tech issues struck, I could easily fulfill every learning objectives and still lower the expectations for several graded categories in my classes, much to the relief of my students.

I particularly found specifications grading effective for relatively small, repeated assignments like journals where partial credit is particularly arbitrary and missing the rubric on one or two assignments both teaches an important lesson about following the assignment guide and has a relatively minimal overall effect on the final grade. Whether or not I continue with Specifications Grading as an overarching grading scheme, I will definitely carry these aspects forward into what comes next.

The Bad

More of my students this semester than in the fall term seemed to embrace the spirit of the specs grading and understood how the grade tiers worked, but this still left me with some students who struggled to see the connection between the work that they were completing the grade tiers in the syllabus. A couple of these were unique cases with a confluence of circumstances, but others were more persistent and connected to another issue that frustrated me last semester.

One of the keys to Specifications Grading is transparency. Every assignment guide came with a detailed rubric that spelled out exactly how to earn credit for that assignment. These rubrics were prescriptive in that they articulated the formal characteristics that I was grading on, but they were deliberately open-ended so that the students could work within the guardrails to express themselves. For instance, the journal assignment specified a length, a mandate to include a date, title, and word count, and a set of prompts like “what was the most interesting thing you learned from class this week” or “how would something you learned this week change a paper you wrote earlier in the semester.” For responses to a class movie, the rubric might be that you need to answer each question with at least 2 complete sentences appropriate for the movie.

However, I often got the sense that the students weren’t checking their work against the rubric before submitting it. In the small repeated assignments one or two times being told that an assignment wasn’t accepted put the students back on the right track, but then in some of these cases the students would trip up in exactly the same way on the next assignment.

Even more worrying was that this also happened on bigger assignments like papers where students turned in sometimes two or more drafts that seemed to rely on little more than hope that it fulfilled the rubric, even after having the students use this exact rubric for the purposes of peer review. I allow students to revise their papers both as a matter of praxis for teaching writing and because not doing so would be too draconian a policy for a specs system (see below), but nevertheless getting rounds of papers that simply ignored the guidelines, and, in at least one case, introduced new ways that the paper missed the rubric on revision, made me ask in frustration why I provide the rubrics in the first place.

But for all of these frustrations, these are not the reasons I’m considering whether to keep a specifications model or adopt some sort of hybrid system.

The Ugly

Two semesters into using Specifications Grading, my biggest question is whether it is a good match for writing-enhanced classes.

I really like the rubric I designed for grading essays in this system. Unlike most specs rubrics that use a proficient/not-proficient binary, my rubric has two “pass” tiers, one for basic proficiency and another for advanced. The advanced tier I calibrated at roughly a low-A. Earning a C in this course required revising one of three papers to the advanced tier and just the first tier for the other two, a B required revising two, and the A required all three.

Despite the promises of specs grading, I have not found that this system saves me any time at all, especially when grading papers on the learning management system, which I do as a matter of equity (e.g. costs of printing), scheduling (e.g. not having things due at class time), and convenience (e.g. I can toggle between versions). Simply put, I found that a lot of students would not be able to write well enough to fulfill the advanced tier of the rubric on one paper, let alone three. Even when they looked at the scored rubric, which was not always the case, I felt like I had to give lots of direct and actionable feedback in the paper itself, in the rubric comments, and in the summary comments on the paper. Otherwise, I feared, the students might not be able to make the connections between whatever they wrote and the rubric scores.

Let me be clear here: the system works. As I told my students, my goal at this point in their college career is to help build good writing skills and habits so so that every student knows that they can revise a (relatively short) paper to a high quality before they get to the two research-centric classes that they take in their junior and senior year. I am also comfortable with the rubric calibration because each semester I had a few students who fulfilled the rubric with no or minimal revisions to their paper, and nearly every student improved dramatically from the start of the semester to the end.

But there were also some days when I felt like I was dragging two classes worth of students (46, at final count) toward writing proficiency, on top of being responsible for the course content, two sections of tag-along non-WE sections of these courses (6 students), and the first year seminar. It was a lot. Having two sections of this process of course magnified all of the issues, but it also left me wondering whether continuing down this path toward completely spec-ified writing-enhanced courses is sustainable. I don’t relish the prospect of going back to traditional points-based grading either, which makes me wonder if I can imagine some sort of hybrid grading scheme that does what I want it to do.

The World of Jason Fitger

Julie Schumacher has published two novels about academic life, Dear Committee Members (2014) and The Shakespeare Requirement (2018), with a third in the series, The English Experience due out in August. The first two novels are campus farces featuring the eccentric professor of creative writing Jason Fitger who received his job and tenure at the small midwestern Payne College on the strength of literary novels years ago, though his most recent novel The Transfer of Affection both flopped and precipitated his divorce. Now he remains embedded in Payne, laboring away in a deeply dysfunctional department.

And to begin this recommendation on the proper footing: no, I will not fill out the inane computerized form that is intended to precede or supplant this letter; ranking a student according to his or her placement among the “top 10 percent,” “top 2 percent,” or the “top 0.000001 percent” is pointless and absurd. No faculty member will rank any student, no matter how severely lacking in ability or reason, below “top 10 percent.” This would be tantamount to describing the candidate in question as a witless beast. A human being and his or her caliber, intellect, character, and promise are not reducible to a check mark in a box. Faced with a reductionist formula such as yours, I despair for the future, consoling myself with the thought that I and others of my generation, with its archaic modes of discourse, won’t live to see the barren cyberworld the authors of your recommendation form are determined to create.

Dear Committee Members

Dear Committee Members unfolds over a single academic year, as told through the recommendation letters of one Jason Fitger. Professor Fitger writes a lot of recommendation letters, and takes great pride in the genre. Perhaps too much pride. Each of the letters he writes does indeed recommend the candidate for positions that range from jobs to graduate schools to administrative positions on campus. But these letters also contain flourishes that let the recipient know exactly what he, Jason Fitger M.F.A., thinks of them, their position, and the whole academic apparatus. Invariably, this commentary also means that the letters often wander into an ongoing one-sided dialogue between Fitger and his silent interlocutors such as his current department chair (a Sociologist imposed on the department), his ex-girlfriend Carole Samarkind (the associate director of Student Services at Payne), his ex-wife Janet Matthias, who he met at a prestigious writing Seminar and now is an administrator in the law school at Payne, and Eleanor Acton, their former classmate and now director of the Seminar from whom he is attempting to secure a position for his mentee Darren Browles.

Fitgers commentary traces the contours of an academic year, and the absurdity of the whole system—including letters of recommendation—is deeply familiar to anyone who has worked in it. Indeed, these are the letters of recommendation I wish I could write. Further, Schumacher offers cutting commentary about the state of the contemporary university.

Iris Temple has applied to your MFA program in fiction and has asked me to support, via this LOR, her application. I find this difficult to do, not because Ms. Temple is unqualified (she is a gifted and disciplined writer and has published several stories in appropriately obscure venues), but because your program at Torreforde State offers its graduate writers no funding or aid of any kind—an unconscionable act of piracy and a grotesque, systemic abuse of vulnerable students, to whom you extend the false hope that writing a $50,000 check to your institution will be the first step toward artistic success.

Dear Committee Members

But Schumacher cuts the comedy of Jason Fitger the difficult and absurd colleague always kvetching about something or another by making it clear that is nevertheless deeply cares about his students and will go to great lengths to help them succeed. This character trait likewise adds emotional weight to a dark plot line about the declining emotional state of Darren Browles reflected through Fitger’s futile efforts to save him.

The Shakespeare Requirement picks up the following academic year, with Jason Fitger, the creative writing professor with a lowly MFA, now at the helm of Payne University’s English Department, his colleagues grudgingly voting for him at the end of Dear Committee Members.

This novel has functionally three core plot threads.

The first follows Dennis Cassovan, aging professor of Shakespeare who loathes that while he was on sabbatical his colleagues burdened the department with Fitger, a mediocre novelist and non-scholar. What’s more, administration is requiring a “vision statement” for the department and there is a chance that that vision might exclude the Bard himself. Cassovan objects, strenuously, and the cause is taken up by his long-suffering research assistant Lincoln, who makes Shakespeare a cause célèbre on campus—much to his annoyance—after the poster on Cassovan’s door is vandalized.

Here was the future, Cassovan thought. Out with considered argument and nuance; in with publicity students, competitive righteousness, and the thrill of rage.

The second follows Angela Vackrey, a timid but promising student from a small, conservative town whose work attracts the attention of both Fitger and Cassovan. However, both men are too preoccupied with administrative and faculty issues to offer her much mentorship, and Angela finds herself adrift without any close friends at college. In part, this is how she finds herself pregnant after a single sexual experience with a boy from her Bible study. Surely this means that she must marry him?

Finally, there is Fitger himself. I am very fortunate to be in a department with an exceptionally competent chair—so much so that last year the department joked that our reappointment vote was to prevent her from stepping down. Jason Fitger is the opposite of that: a roiling mess of disorganization and impolitic observations with barely any sense of the levers of power within an academic institution. To make matters worse, his ex-wife Janet Matthias is dating the Dean who signs off on the department paperwork and Roland Gladwell, the chair of the well-resourced Economics department, is staging a hostile takeover of their shared building. Oh, and campus newspaper has run a series of articles condemning Fitger’s “Literature of the Apocalypse” course as traumatic.

The students, who have requested anonymity, claim that the reading list for the fall class—on the “Literature of the Apocalypse”—was detrimental to their mental health and “psychologically hostile.” One of the students has reported consulted a family lawyer.

Sophomore Yvetta Curtin, who was not enrolled in the class but had seen a copy of the syllabus, suggested that the selection of novels was “irresponsible” and could be dangerous for students with emotional issues or PTSD.

Fitger’s only hope may lay in the person of the department secretary, Fran, who miraculously keeps the department moving forward despite its lack of a budget. The problem is that in order to have a budget, the department must have a vision statement and, thanks to Roland’s meddling, the department must approve the statement unanimously. But Fitger will get the statement approved over Cassovan’s dead body unless it includes requires that all English majors take a Shakespeare class.

The Shakespeare Requirement retains a similar tone to the Dear Committee Members, but dispatching with the epistolary format allows Schumacher to offer wider perspective on the campus culture of Payne. Schumacher treats Payne as an every-college. The humanities are underfunded, numerous students apathetic or overwhelmed, and administrators out of touch with the practice of teaching. The hubbub about students not even in the class being outraged by Fitger’s literature of the apocalypse class might as well be a campus culture wars headline about Schumacher’s alma mater Oberlin. While some of these caricatures wore a little thin at times, I found that the wider perspective made the campus satire hit somewhat closer to home for better and for worse. Where Fitger’s (failed) romantic partnerships and his (doomed) attempt to save his mentee form the core plots of Dear Committee Members, The Shakespeare Requirement follows a protracted war over the future of the school. Victory might hinge on the silliest of factors in the novel, but the fight itself is all-too real.

Education was expensive and inefficient; teaching students to think and write clearly was the same. But Hoffman, a business school graduate with the singe-cell mind of a banker, had never taught anyone anything. Her ultimate plan would be to organize the campus into two simple units: “Numbers” and “Words.”

The Shakespeare Requirement

I am a big fan of both of these novels. They are fun, light reads filled with sweeping caricatures and clever turns of phrase, but with some of the darker—and altogether human—crises of higher education hovering just beneath the surface. The comic sub-genre of campus novel is to the best of my knowledge not extensive, and the genre writ-large tends to focus on character or coming of age stories. This makes it almost inevitable that Schumacher’s books would be compared to Kingsley Amis’ Lucky Jim, which I particularly disliked. Schumacher populates her books with quirky and sometimes bad or unlikable characters, she avoids the meanness and myopia that I found in Lucky Jim. Schumacher makes it clear that however difficult and disoriented Fitger becomes, he legitimately trying and some of his most dramatic failures come from the best intentions—something that seems likely to have been drawn from experience in academia.


This semester got away from me and I’m not sure which of my recent reads will receive profiles here. I am currently reading Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Children of Time.

The Past is an Alien World

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Doing History 101

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some Writing Advice for Students

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

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

Most people struggle with writing in some way or another.

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

That’s the bad news.

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

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

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

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

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

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

How do I choose a research topic?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Inventing Utopia

This week in my speculative fiction first-year seminar we have been working through a mini-unit on Utopias and Utopian thinking.

On Monday, I gave in lecture a “brief history of Utopian thinking” (I tried to name as many daily topics as possible like they were episode titles from Community). We started with a breakdown of Thomas More’s Utopia (1516) and the society therein, but then explored both earlier examples like the Golden Age of Man in Hesiod’s Works and Days and Plato’s Republic, and historical attempts to create these communities like the Shakers and the Oneida Community. That day concluded with a discussion of what utopias do, both in terms of social critique of the present and imagining a better future. We haven’t yet talked about Atlantis and Atlantean-type stories as Utopias because I (mistakenly) put it at the end of this unit, but the next time I teach this class, I’m going to move that day to put it more directly in dialogue with this one.

Then, on Wednesday, we read Ursula Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas.” This short story asks you to imagine a happy, pleasant city that can only exist because of the abject suffering of a single child. Everyone in the community is aware of this trade-off and the ones who walk away cannot live with that knowledge. The story prompted a lively discussion, drawing comparisons to the Trolley Problem and generally about the morality of Utopias that always require some sort of trade. Several students challenged whether the people walking away are any more moral than the ones who stay given that even though they are opting out of the benefit of the Utopia they are nevertheless still living with the knowledge of the child’s suffering. One student asked how the message changes if you can’t walk away, to which several responded that it suddenly becomes a dystopia. This was my favorite question, though, because Omelas can be read as allegory for modern society where the happiness of people in one part of the world comes at the expense of the suffering of people elsewhere, in which case individuals only have so much capacity to opt-out.

(We are going to return to this point in the class at the very end of the semester with N.K. Jemisin’s “The Ones Who Stay and Fight.” Now that I think about it, I might move the Utopia discussion to the end of the semester next time around.)

The assignment for this unit is a poster where the students work in groups to create their own utopia, as agreed upon by the group members.

This is a deceptively difficult assignment. It requires thinking through the consequences of the society that they set up and consider what makes it a Utopia. One of the things I stressed in our discussions is that a Utopia for one is not a Utopia for all (except in the fleeting moment of Hesiod’s Golden Age), so one of the tasks is to define who are the “in” group and who are the “out” group, with those definitions being entirely up to the group. The larger the society, the harder it is to think through the consequences of the rules, laws, and social norms. This is why it amuses me that one group is re-creating a Matrix to allow each person their own bespoke Utopia that exists only in their minds.

To be completely transparent, this assignment is my equivalent of the Kobayashi Maru, just with a different set of lessons that can be taken from it.

If I were completing this same assignment, I would start by considering the sources of human conflict, big and small. If we were able to eliminate scarcity, jealousy, and pain, that would eliminate most conflict. Something like the world imagined in Wall-E as a dystopian future after humans destroyed the world.

The issue is that the elimination of all of these needs strips away something essential to being human, I think. Put another way, I think it is not possible to both have humans and to have a true Utopia, thus short-circuiting the whole exercise. As Hesiod says in Works and Days, we live in an Iron Age where we are doomed to experience sickness and pain as our meat sacks move through the world. It is simply the price of being human. Thus, the best that we can hope for is to mitigate the suffering that comes from scarcity, jealousy, and pain rather than eliminate it altogether. And, to paraphrase a delirious priest in Brothers Karamazov, we already live in paradise, so we have all the tools of that mitigation if we’re willing to commit to the practice.

However, this impossibility is also why I really like this assignment, perhaps with some fiddling around the edges. Utopias are good to think with, and working through the potential issues as a group forces the students to focus on the process rather than skipping ahead to the product.

Summer 2023 Reading List: food history

Last summer I set for myself a reading list of recent work on Roman history, which blended books I came across in book lists, reviews, etc, with crowd-source suggestions. My summer ended up being much busier than I had anticipated, but the list still proved a valuable resource over the past few months and I have a continued to refer to it.

With this in mind, I am starting to put together my reading slate for Summer 2023. This year I want to do a broad survey of food history, with 8–10 books that encompass a range of different approaches to the topic. I have been reading in this area out of interest for the past few years, so there are a number of “obvious” books that I have excluded for no other reason than that I have already read them. The difference this time is that I am looking to be somewhat more systematic in my approach.

This is the list I have come up with so far:

  1. Leonard Barkan, The Hungry Eye: Eating, Drinking, and European Culture from Rome to the Renaissance (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2021).
  2. Hasia R. Diner, Hungering for America: Italian, Irish, and Jewish Foodways in the Age of Migration (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003).
  3. Robert William Fogel, The Escape from Hunger and Premature Death, 1700–2100: Europe, America and the Third World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004).
  4. Sally Grainger, The Story of Garum: Fermented Fish Sauce and Salted Fish in the Ancient World (New York: Routledge, 2020).
  5. Rachel Laudan, Cuisine and Empire: Cooking in World History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013).
  6. Rachel Louise Martin, Hot, Hot Chicken: A Nashville Story (Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2021).
  7. Patrick E. McGovern, Ancient Wine: The Search for the Origins of Viniculture (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007).
  8. Massimo Montanari, Food is Culture, trans. Albert Sonnenfeld (New York: Columbia University Press, 2006).
  9. Jean-Pierre Poulain, The Sociology of Food: Eating and the Place of Food in Society (London: Bloomsbury, 2017).
  10. Adam D. Shprintzen, The Vegetarian Crusade: The Rise of an American Reform Movement, 1817–1921 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015).

Also considered:

  • Ken Albaba, Eating Right in the Renaissance (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002).
  • Laura M. Banducci, Foodways in Roman Republican Italy (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2021).
  • Brian Fagan, Fish on Friday: Feasting, Fasting, and the Discovery of the New World (New York: Basic Books, 2006).
  • Felipe Fernández-Amersto, New a Thousand Tables: A History of Food (New York: The Free Press, 2002).
  • Paul Freedman, Food: The History of Taste (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007).
  • James C. McCann, Stirring the Pot: A History of African Cuisine (Athens, Oh: Ohio University Press, 2009).
  • Patrick E. McGovern, Uncorking the Past: The Quest for Wine, Beer, and Other Alcoholic Beverages (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009).
  • Sidney W. Mintz, Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History (New York: Penguin, 1986).
  • Jeffrey M. Pilcher, Que vivan los tamales!: Food and the Making of Mexican Identity (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1998).
  • Roy Strong, Feast: A History of Grand Eating (New York: Harcourt, 2003).
  • Caroline Walker-Bynum, Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000).

Food history is obviously an enormous topic and I am stretching myself beyond ancient history for this particular reading list, so I am particularly keen to hear recommendations with a particular focus on recent volumes or if there is a methodological approach I am sorely neglecting.

ChatGPT, Again

I had no intention of returning to the ChatGPT discourse. I said my piece back in December and the conversation seemed to take a histrionic turn around the start of the semester when the course planning period coincided with a wave of op eds that treated AI-writing as an existential crisis.

Moral panics turn tedious in a hurry and I bore easily.

Happily, I think that the discussion is starting to move into a more compelling and, I hope nuanced, direction. In his column at Inside Higher Ed last week, for instance, Matt Reed suggested that there are two issues at play with AI-generated writing. The one, academic dishonesty and how to catch it, receives the bulk of the attention. The other, disinformation and inaccuracies, has to this point received much less attention. In other words, the practical considerations about the norms, expectations, and enforcement of academic transactions are taking precedence over the underlying principles. This sort of priority of course makes sense, as anyone who has worked within the institutions of higher education can tell you, but I also think that it misses that these two issues are inextricably intertwined.

Simply put, I am convinced that ChatGPT specifically, and AI more generally, is a digital and information literacy issue.

Now, I should acknowledge that the stakes involved are more profound outside of the semi-controlled academic context, and at least potentially herald fundamental disruption to existing economic models. Google, for instance, is reportedly treating the chatbot like an existential threat to their hegemony over access to information online. Likewise, AI-generated art is just the latest technology that will allow companies to cut labor costs—why pay artists to create cover-art for a book when you can have an intern churn out AI-generated images until you find one you like? As much as I maintain that AI is a tool and the person producing the art is an artist, companies are not likely to compensate the artist as such under these scenarios. But while both of these are ethical issues related to my point about digital literacy, neither are they wholly new.

When it comes to writing, AI is a tool, and tools are only as good as their users. A spell-Czech [sic] doesn’t provide any value if one doesn’t have the vocabulary to recognize when it misleads, just as gratuitous use a thesaurus can lead the writer astray. Predictive text is fine for email, but I find it distracting in other contexts because the program prompts me down particular lines of composition. And, as I put in the last post on this topic, citation generators will lead you astray if you are unwilling or unable to format the text that it generates.

In this sense, the danger with AI is that people are going to treat a tool for something as a replacement for that thing. But this does not constitute either an existential crisis or a fundamental disruption, despite groups of people treating it as one or the other.

There are a myriad reason that a student might submit an AI-generated essay. Most of these overlap with the reasons a student might purchase an essay or otherwise cheat on assignments, and need to be addressed as such. However, AI should give educators greater pause because, compared to the other forms of dishonesty, AI might give the impression to some students that they don’t need to learn the skill in the first place. Chatbots can give the appearance of engaging with a historical figure, but they do not actually let you converse with that person any more than the Metaverse can allow you to watch Mark Antony debate in Rome in 32 BCE. But that superficial engagement risks drawing people away from the actual substance that would allow the participant to see how the AI turns unredeemed racists into apologists for their heinous beliefs or to recognize that seeing Antony debate in Rome in 32 BCE would be quite a feat because he was in Egypt gearing up for war with Octavian at that time.

On a whim, I decided to ask ChatGPT why students should avoid using the AI to write papers. This was what it produced:

I followed that prompt with a question about whether AI could help students with their writing:

I received a slightly more enthusiastic response when I directly inverted the original prompt, but still as a tool that can make writing easier or more efficient. At my most cantankerous, I dislike several of these uses—text summarization assumes one viable reading that simply isn’t true, which is also my problem with services like Blinkist, and I think that text generation will create pathways that guide how the person writes and thinks about a topic—but I could make similar arguments for writing being shaped by whatever we’re reading and simple reliance on the the first definition of a word found in a dictionary. As I said in my original post, if someone were to use AI as a tool and produce a quality paper either without any further intervention or by editing and polishing the text until it met the standards, that paper would meet my criteria for what I want my students to achieve in the class. This process would not be my preference, but the student would have guided the program through numerous rounds of revision much as they would draft and re-draft any paper that they wrote themselves. So much so that it would be easier to just write the paper, in fact. I doubt that a truly revolutionary thesis could be developed that way, but the student would have demonstrated their mastery of the course material and a sensitive understanding of the writing practices to know that it met standards on my rubric—grammar might be easier to accomplish, but the other categories not so much.

In fact, the arrival of AI makes it all the more important for students to learn skills like reading, writing, and, especially in my discipline, historical literacy. To do this, though, I think it is a mistake to issue blanket prohibitions or build assessment as though it does not exist. Rather, I want students to understand both why AI is not a great choice and what its limitations are, which requires steering into AI, at least a little bit.

This semester I am planning two types of activities, both of which are similar to the suggestions made in an opinion piece published today in Inside Higher Ed.

I scheduled a week for my first year seminar to address their first big writing assignment. The students have no reading this week, during which they will be working on their drafts of their first paper that are due on Friday. In the two class periods earlier in the week, I am going to have them complete an exercise using ChatGPT in their groups for the semester. On Monday, the students will work with ChatGPT to produce papers about the readings that we have covered to this point in the class, sharing with the me the results of the exercise. Then they will be charged with offering a critical evaluation of the generated text, which we will spend time on Wednesday sharing and discussing the critiques with the class, which will segue into a discussion of what makes writing “good.”

Students in my upper-division courses will do a similar exercise. As their first essays approach, I am going to provide students essays produced by ChatGPT using the same prompts and my essay rubric. Their task will be to “mark” the ChatGPT.

The goal is the same in both cases: to remind students that AI has severe limitations that cannot replace their unique thoughts. Further, I aim to engage the students as both writers and editors since I see the latter skill as an essential part of the writing process.

I don’t want suggest a prescriptive advice in this given that my class sizes and teaching mandates allow me to pursue some of these options. But the ChatGPT discourse has made even more convinced that it is necessary to teach basic, foundational, transferrable skills that will empower students to engage responsibly with the world in which they live.

Weekly Varia no. 10, 01/21/23

The first week of the semester is in the books. All three of my classes have gotten off to pretty good starts, but I always forget how exhausting the first week of the semester can be. My to-do list has bloomed (more algae than roses, though) heading into this weekend, so this weekend will be spent slowly working through tasks that range from some administrative upkeep to shorting up soft spots in my reading lists to the first round of grading, lest the semester snowball out of control.

This week’s varia:

  • Daniel Bessner has a good opinion piece in the Times about the perilous state of history. He points out that “deprofessionalization” of the field creates the breeding grounds for ” the ahistoric ignorance upon which reaction relies” because so much “history” is placed in the hands of social media influencers and influential partisan actors like Bill O’Reilly.
  • ChatGPT roundups are just a thing, I guess.
  • The Missouri legislature is currently debating a bunch of CRT-in-education bills. One proposed bill ensures that nobody will be offering kindergartners classes in CRT, a field of study usually reserved for law schools and advanced sociology degrees. I say, why are parents trying to stop their kids from being pushed ahead? More seriously, this is a continuation of last year’s cultural war du jour that treats any sort of training on issues of diversity, equity and inclusion as nefarious CRT and legislates feelings in a way that puts teachers in an impossible position, which is why one proponent of the bill simply refused to define what he meant by it. These sorts of debates only hurt education, but what bothers me most about the committee meeting is the hostility toward education and educators. When a poll revealed that only one school district claimed they taught a class on these issues, the committee chair’s response was “at least one school district was honest.”
  • The Washington Post has a profile of Matt Yglesias, looking at his career as a disrupter, contrarian, and public thinker. Personally, I find Yglesias to be a problematic figure whose primary claim as someone who can spin a plausible argument out of minimal evidence is as symptomatic of where we are as a society as is Donald Trump. Every once in a while he makes a worthwhile point, but, most of the time, he’s functionally firing hot takes that get treated as something more substantial.
  • The re-election campaign for Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who appoints the Chicago school superintendent, sent email to schoolteachers asking that they encourage students to work for the campaign in exchange for school credit. This very likely violates ethics rules—especially since there credible (it’s Chicago) accusations of retaliation from the mayor. Students volunteering for campaigns for credit is nothing new, but teachers are not supposed to encourage participation in specific campaigns.
  • The Oversight Board at Meta, which oversees content decisions for both Facebook and Instagram, has told the company that it should “free the nipple” (so to speak). What this will look like is yet to be determined since the company is still likely to want to keep pornography off the platforms, which was the genesis of the policy.
  • A Republican candidate for office in New Mexico has been arrested as the mastermind of a string of shootings that targeted Democratic politicians in the state. The man had to overcome a legal challenge to even stay in the election given his prior felony conviction and, unsurprisingly, he claims that the election was stolen from him.
  • An Indiana woman repeatedly stabbed an 18-year-old student in Indiana University of Asian heritage. The suspect told police that it “would be one less person to blow up our country.”
  • The Kansas City Defender, a black news outlet, reported on the abduction of black women in Kansas City, but the KC police department dismissed the allegations. Then, in December, a woman escaped captivity. Capital B News has an interview with Ryan Sorrell, the founder of the KC Defender, about the story and his efforts to create a crowd-sourced Black missing persons database.
  • Ohio officially declared natural gas “green energy.” The Washington Post has an article on how the campaign ran on Dark Money. Because, of course it did.
  • Americans might be done with the pandemic, but the pandemic is not done with us. Also from the Washington Post, winter COVID surges are a new normal, adding to the typical surges in other respiratory illnesses.
  • Jacinda Ardern is stepping down as Prime Minister of New Zealand, saying that she doesn’t have “enough in the tank” to do the job any longer. While this decision coincides with an uptick in threats against her, I am struck by a politician having the unusual level of self-awareness to know when enough is enough and the combination of humility and privilege to be able to act on that knowledge.
  • Vulture has a good piece on the labor conditions in Hollywood’s VFX studios where the industry standards were developed before the current age of enormous amounts of work after filming, which is leading to systemic understaffing and underpaying made worse by Marvel being a Goliath in the industry.
  • “Marge vs the Monorail” aired thirty years ago this month. Alan Siegel at The Ringer got Conan O’Brien to talk about his idea for the episode as a cross between The Music Man and an Irwin Allen disaster film.

Album of the Week: Counting Crows, This Desert Life

Currently Reading: Marissa R. Moss, Her Country; Rabun M. Taylor, Roman Builders