Polishing Your Prose

“Writing is hard” is a truism, but these three words conceal a more complicated reality. Simple word generation, though looking for the right words is rarely simple, is comparatively simple. Taking words found on the first pass and polishing them until they shine––until they dance and sing when someone takes their time to read them––is hard. In short: writing is easy; editing is hard.

Fortunately, editing is a learned skill, and there is no shortage of guidebooks on the subject, each offering a series of rules, tips, and tricks. Polishing Your Prose, written by the brothers Stephen and Victor Cahn, belongs to this genre.

The first section of Polishing Your Prose, “strategies,” presents ten key concepts for clear and concise writing. They eschew the idea that these are “rules,” but go on to largely repeat commonly-held rules for writing such as eliminating empty constructions, redundancy, and jargon, minimizing adverbs and adjectives, and making sure that pronouns have clear antecedents. Other strategies are equally straightforward but more subtle, such varying sentence structure, using parallel structures for coordinating elements, using transitions to link ideas, and placing the most dramatic material at the end of the sentence thereby allowing sentences and paragraphs to build toward a crescendo.

The Cahns present each strategy simply, as though it is common sense, with the occasional gem of observational wisdom, such as “if you can’t find an appropriate transition, your ideas may not be as coherent as your presume.”

The second section puts these words into action with three paragraphs from an early draft of an essay on teaching math that eventually saw the light of publication. Word by word, sentence by sentence, and paragraph by paragraph, the Cahns work through these passages and talk about their thought process to polish the text. They suggest that the reader edit the paragraphs before reading on, but without an easy way to do this I skipped the step. Nevertheless, there is a lot to be gleaned from reading their thought-process, such as noting that paragraphs need to maintain unified themes and that careful use of a thesaurus is a writer’s friend. Most of all, as the conclusion reminds us, this section demonstrates that editing is not a straightforward process, but one that requires constant tinkering, reworking, and reconsideration choices, because editing, like writing, is a matter of choice.

Polishing Your Prose shares much of its advice with other books in this genre, in large part because there is no grand secret to writing well. What I appreciated about this one is its emphasis on process. The Cahns assume everyone has their own voice, and Polishing Your Prose is designed to draw attention to the choices an author in the hopes that that voice can sing.

Before wrapping this up, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the epilogue. I appreciated the rest of the book and can see using a variation of part two in a classroom, but the epilogue, which consisted of an autobiographical piece from each author, stole the show. The one detailed a class in graduate school where the professor demanded that the students resolve a philosophical problem by thinking for themselves rather than referring to a body of literature that as a first year student he knew nothing about––and in so doing this professor forced the students to learn. The other was a comic tale of youthful male hubris that I ate up. Both essays amounted to the authors flexing, mature authors offering ample evidence why one ought to pay attention to their advice.

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#PhDSkills is a collaborative project created by Naomi Rendina and Greg Wiker where graduate students and early-career academics volunteer to read and review on Twitter books on teaching and writing. Polishing Your Prose is my third contribution, the final one scheduled to date. I am happy to talk about the book further in the comments or on Twitter.

Form and Content: a note on writing

“Do I have to write in paragraphs?”

I used to receive variations of this question every semester, and I’m sure that I will hear it again from students, often first years, who are deeply concerned about the expectations of an academic essay.

“Yes,” I answer, not because I’m against creative presentation, but because giving the option of using a bullet-point list undermines the hard work of stitching a series of thoughts into a single argument.

Echoes of this frantic question have come back to me in recent weeks, first while reading John Warner’s Why They Can’t Write, and then again when I saw a lament on Twitter about the encroaching tyranny of the listicle as a medium of discourse.

Every format has strengths and weaknesses.

The essay, a medium for which I have a great deal of affection, lays out an argument or tells a story by leading the reader from one point to the next. In the hands of a master the essay is a lyrical medium, but it is not only hard, but also unsuited to all tasks.

A list, for instance, conveys information simply and concisely in the face of tumult and complexity. There is comfort in lists, but they belie fluidity. An example: I have kept one of my favorite novels for years, but between the fogginess of memory and whims of a given day the novel that belongs in the ninth spot of the list changes.

An outline gives the structure of an argument, even if the actual order, at least in my experience, is liable to change in the execution.

The listicle, by contrast, is a cross between the list and the essay. It takes the argument and points of an essay and meshes it with the order and structure of a list. Meatier than a list and more easily digested than an essay, it is perfect for consumption on a mobile device, matched for a fast-paced world.

Good writing is good writing, and the same holds here, but the very efficiency of the listicle also contributes to its forgettability. Where I can rattle off a dozen or more essays that I recommend to people, there is not a single listicle I can say the same about unless I thought to do so while reading it. But I’m also busy, and therefore generally happy to skim through a listicle on any number of topics where I might decide that reading and processing an essay is too much of a commitment.

In the classroom there are any number of ways to cut corners and grade more quickly, but my objective is not speed. Outlines are a nice tool, whether to help students organize their thoughts, prepare a long written piece, or (my preference) part of the revision process, but it is not the same thing as learning how to pull together a complete piece of writing.

Hewing to John Warner’s mantra that writing is thinking, the ability to lead your reader from one point to another is a learned skill that requires repetition, feedback, and revision. In this sense, the very trepidation that my students exhibit about writing is validation for having them write fully-formed essays.

Why They Can’t Write

I just wrapped up my second read for the #PhDSkills project, John Warner’s Why They Can’t Write. Much like I did for The Writer’s Diet, I want to provide some summary thoughts here to supplement the lengthy Twitter thread.

In Why They Can’t Write, John Warner has written a two-pronged manifesto. On one level his target is a system starved of funds, weighed down by folklore, wracked by misguided fads, and ruined by rounds of reformers without experience. It is a bleak picture, and Warner does not shy away from it. Teachers are expected to work miracles, while being expected to take a vow of poverty and to work with inadequate resources. Meanwhile, student performance has remained roughly constant. There are no easy solutions outside a large-scale re-commitment to education, but Warner articulates how these failures undermine his ability to teach writing at the college level.

In other words, it isn’t their fault.

I found this argument compelling, but, as I tweeted at one point in the thread, I am the choir for Warner’s preaching.

In this post I want to reflect on the second prong, lessons from years in the classroom. At its heart, Warner’s advice consists of key ways to reconsider assignments and assessments to bring them closer in line with what we claim to be teaching.

  1. Avoid teaching writing through a list of rules of dos and donts. Rules only work if the students understand why the rules exist.Deprogram students from thinking about writing as mere word-generation designed to pass superficial examination, encouraging them to think about writings as thinking.
  2. Give students agency over what they write.
  3. Find ways to make writing meaningful. For instance, encourage students to write for an audience that is greater than the professor.
  4. Give students the agency to fail, to learn from failure, and to try again.
  5. Don’t require students to write about topics they do not know about.
  6. Approach assignments as activities and unpack the process students need to go through.
  7. Frame assessment in terms of improvement and the next opportunity, not simply justifying a grade.
  8. Remember: writing is hard and students need opportunities to develop expertise

This advice emerges from the comp classroom and some of the specific tips such as to teach “writing experiences” struck me as most useful in that context. Yet, these underlying lessons are broadly applicable across disciplines and Warner includes an oblique indictment of professors in other fields who lament their students’ inability to write, namely that they, too, bear some of the responsibility.

I teach history at a college level and since entering graduate school I have heard history professors bluntly declare that they don’t teach writing. They explain this position by falling back on the claim that history is too big (true) and that students learn those skills in English classes (stretching the truth, particularly since lit professors could similarly pass the baton). The silo approach to academic disciplines is backward on a number of levels; in this case it sets overworked composition teachers up to take the blame for failing an impossible task.

Since I want to put my words into action, I have my students write as much as I can feasibly give feedback on. The methods I use, however, have changed over time and will continue to change.

I particularly have an issue with the pedagogy of the “bluebook” in-class exam, which I see as a concession to scale. As a TA I probably graded a couple thousand of these exams, which usually consisted of an essay (sometimes with the prompt given in advance) and short answer questions from an ID bank. The students came to class stressed and sleep deprived (few people ever took my advice to get a full night’s sleep before an exam) and then dumped anything and everything they knew onto the page as quickly as possible.

On occasion students wrote brilliant essays in this format. These essays received all the validation of a dozen check marks, a high grade and a “Great job!.” More frequently these exams were objectively a mess as the students tried to prove that they had learned, at least for those fifty minutes, the content of the class.

The truth is that I am not interested in what a student can memorize and write down under those conditions. When I got my own classes I resolved that I would not give bluebook exams unless absolutely necessary and I have kept that resolution.

(I also have a few ideas how to modify bluebook exams when the logistics of a large class overwhelm my principles, but I will cross that bridge when I come to it.)

What I do instead is assign a variety of writing assignments. Some have not worked: a book review proved too challenging because students didn’t have adequate context and I am still tweaking how to best have students write source analyses.

Others have been smashing successes in my opinion. I assign take-home exams where my students write essays on big questions in the field. The assignment guide the students receive gives them several sets of prompts (it changes, but usually a set of two and a set of three prompts) and they are expected to use at least one primary and one secondary source to answer the question. I also add some additional advice: these are big questions of the sort that you could write a comprehensive exam answer in graduate school or a book; you ARE NOT expected to address the entirety of the topic, but need to narrow the focus and make an argument on the topic.

When I return the assignments covered in marks about a week later, I summarize the common problems. Students tried to do too much; there wasn’t a clear argument; that sort of thing. I tell them that the notes focus on how to improve on future assignments because the final is the same format. Then I say that if they are not satisfied with the grade, they have an opportunity to revise the assignment, on the condition that they meet with me.

About 20% of my students take me up on the chance to revise. When they come to my office, I usually skim their papers briefly, hand the exam back, and open with the question “how would you improve this essay?” What follows is a 15-20 minute conference where the students and I reflect on their essays and talk about how to improve the next draft.

Some students come back to conference more than once, but students write significantly improved essays after revision across the board. Even more encouraging is that these experiences carry through to the final so while most students improve from the midterm, the ones who revised their midterms improve more.

I also work in additional ways to help students think, write, and reflect throughout the semester, but this exam format is my favorite. Thinking about the points enumerated from Why They Can’t Write, this assignment fits in the genre of historical essay, but in a class where students are developing the necessary subject knowledge. Further, my emphasis is on writing as thinking, not word-generation. Students receive the opportunity to learn from their mistakes and reflect on their process, and my feedback is on how to improve on their writing for next time.

This is by no means a perfect assignment; I particularly want to find ways to give students more agency, other assignments could scaffold to this one better, and, ultimately, students are still only writing for me. But it is a start.

Why They Can’t Write has given me a lot to chew on as I design my syllabuses for the coming semester. I am particularly giving closer thought to unpacking the assignments as activities where “writing the paper” comes only at the end of the process.

And so this choirboy sings, teaching students to students to write is a project that professors across disciplines need to own (see also: the writing across the curriculum movement) and whether this sentiment appeals to you or you remain a skeptic, you should read Why They Can’t Write.

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#PhDSkills is a collaborative project created by Naomi Rendina and Greg Wiker where graduate students and early-career academics volunteer to read and review on Twitter books on teaching and writing. Why They Can’t Write is my second contribution and I am happy to talk about the book further here or on Twitter. I will be back with another review in early February when I tackle Steven and Victor Cahn’s Polishing Your Prose.

The Writer’s Diet

Over on Twitter I signed up to participate in a Teaching and Writing project where members sign up to read and tweet about books using #PhDSkills. I completed my first book, Helen Sword’s The Writer’s Diet, with a lengthy thread. Here I want to jot down some thoughts, most of which is reflected in the linked thread.

Sword pitches The Writer’s Diet as a fitness routine for writing, meant to inspire long-term change through straight-forward advice and exercises. She divides the book into five chapters that tackle five common flaws in (academic) writing: “zombie nouns” (nouns made from adjectives or verbs), “be” verbs, excessive preposition use, excessive adjectives and adverbs, and using “it,” “this,” “there,” and “that” indiscriminately without attention to referents or precision. Each chapter comes with a series of exercises to draw the reader’s attention to these mistakes, to expand his or her vocabulary, and to otherwise improve writing. Similarly, each chapter comes with both positive and negative examples, making it clear that while these are pitched as rules there are exceptions when an author breaks the rules with a specific effect in mind. Shakespeare comes up a lot in these examples.

Reading The Writer’s Diet gave me flashbacks to high school English, but also improved my writing. The advice is not complicated, but it is hard to execute. It works here, though, because you read the book because you want to improve your writing and reading the book forces you to write more mindfully. Certainly as I tweeted about the book I noticed that I paid more attention to my syntax and word choice than usual.

The accompanying test is a useful diagnostic tool that I had some fun with over the past week. I ran a portion of my own writing through the test each day, including two articles published in 2018, my book proposal, a conference paper, and the chapter I’m revising right now. The test is a blunt instrument and every day I found some words that the algorithm swept up that I would have forgiven for one reason or another, but on the whole it provides a snapshot of the words you are using in a given piece of writing.

The elephant in the room about The Writer’s Diet is the overarching metaphor. Sword has fun with her writing and like in Air & Light & Time & Space, she creates an overarching metaphor for the book. In the other book it was a house. Here it is fitness and the body. The fitness part of the metaphor is fine, as is the diet, but when it comes to the test in particular there is a sense of body-shaming your writing. The best writing is lean, the second best is fit and trim, then needs toning, flabby, and heart-attack. Fits the theme, yes. Unnecessary, also probably yes.

The Writer’s Diet is a short, cheap, and effective writing guide, but my lingering sense upon completion is that there are others, including her Stylish Academic Writing, which I have not yet read, that provide as much or more without this glaring flaw.

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The Writer’s Diet is the first book I tweeted about for this Teaching and Writing Group, but is not the last. I signed up for at least one more book, John Warner’s Why They Can’t Write, in mid-January.

I must admit that I have only intermittently been following along with the hashtag, but the founders of the group Naomi Rendina and Gregg Wiker have done yeoman’s work putting the thing together. The main cause of my inattention (other than Twitter and being busy) is that a number of the books have been about dissertation writing—an experience behind me and not to the point where I am advising anyone on the process.

There are no secret histories

I loved my Penguin Classics paperback of Procopius’ Secret History as an undergraduate. I still have the book in a box in my office, though I haven’t had cause to take it out recently. Procopius of Caesarea lived in the age of Justinian (r. 527–565 CE), earning a living as secretary and historian for the emperor’s talented general Belisarius. He wrote numerous official histories that detailed Belisarius’ campaigns as part of Justinian’s wars of reconquest, but is better known for the other thing he wrote. That other thing is the Secret History.

In the Secret History, Procopius goes full Alex Jones of the sixth century CE. He accuses the emperor of being a devil stalking the halls of the palace and bringing a devastating plague to the world. These pages reveal a special hatred for women. He accuses Belisarius’ wife of cuckolding her husband with their adopted son, and dedicates long passages to the behavior of Empress Theodora, describing her (alleged) sexual appetites in lurid, pornographic detail. But for all that Procopius reveals about social controversies of his age, the Secret History reads more like a bitter screed than a careful history debunking the official version of events. And for good reason. Published now as the Secret History it was known in the Byzantine Suda as the Anecdota (Ἀνἐκδοτα) or “Unpublished” works.

Procopius is a special case, but I have been thinking about this book recently in conjunction with the genre of popular history book touting to reveal the history your teachers never taught you in school. Between the extremes of conspiracy theory, there is a spectrum of media united in the claim to reveal the truth about the past. Done well, this manifests as, for instance, the 99 Percent Invisible podcast that explores aspects of things that aren’t secret, but also aren’t immediately evident. Frequently, though, they are marketed more explosively as secret histories or under a title promising to reveal arcana guarded by the implacable sentry that is the history textbook.

I love history because it is big and weird—so big, in fact, that the science-oriented Randall Munroe  sarcastically proposed axing all odd or even years.  I say something to this effect to my students at the outset of nearly every course. The rhetorical move made by media marketing itself as “what professors didn’t tell you” is that teaching history requires selection. People who teach US history, as I did last semester, lament the impossibility of covering 150 years or so with any degree of depth, and the problem grows exponentially when the geographical and chronological scope swells to, say, everything in World History before 1500––or even before 1969 as in a course I took in college. Leaving aside the issue of sources, expertise, and political pressures to censor out most scandal, finite class time necessarily leads to superficial and spotty coverage. 

Most history exists beyond the walls of the classroom. Books patiently sit on dusty shelves waiting for a curious mind to challenge the tyranny of the textbook.

(I also believe that history as a discipline undercuts its own authority by introducing students to the field through big, broad courses rather than narrower, idiosyncratic courses. Inverting this structure would start students off with classes that deal with material on a human level, with the specificity of storytelling and enough engagement to arm students with tools before concluding with surveys that tie together the specific material with discussion of broad themes after students were invested enough to appreciate the big picture. In other words, history is taught backward even if reversing course is nigh on impossible.)

Spotty coverage does not a secret history make. I stress in my courses that history is a process, both in doing history and in how it unfolds. Touting something a secret history is at best a marketing gimmick and at worst something more sinister, both of which devalue the process.

There are no secret histories, only history not yet written. Individual documents may be restricted and authorities may push a particular narrative, and in this sense HISTORY is incomplete—and will always be.

More than a numbers game

There is a labor crisis in higher education.

The myth of the well-compensated, insulated, and out of touch professor has a powerful grip on the American imagination, but in fact applies only to a few people, even among those lucky enough to have a tenured position. (The real money comparatively speaking is in administration, unless you happen to be a coach.) Most professors, including those on the tenure track, are not well-paid, particularly relative to their level of education. Setting that issue aside separate, albeit related issue, the larger crisis is that courses are increasingly being taught by adjunct professors with too little pay, no benefits, and no job security.

This is not new. The old line was that you should inquire how much of the teaching at a school is done by graduate instructors, and adjuncts are the latest iteration of the same forces that cause schools to fill credit hours with cheap labor.

In the sense that many, though not all, schools have bi-polar mission of teaching on the one side and world-leading research from their (full-time) faculty on the other, this split makes sense. As much as research influences teaching and vice-versa, both take time to do well. In the humanities, too, research generally doesn’t make money, but remains a benchmark for the university on various external rankings, which, in turn, is part of the pitch to bring in students. The solution is generally to bring in cheap labor to fulfill the teaching mandate, thereby creating a surplus that can be paid to the full-time faculty in the form of salary and research support, including travel and reduced teaching loads. Simple.

Only not so much. With state divestment from higher education, the financial burden for operating a university is frequently being passed on to the students, now branded as the consumers, in the form of tuition, fees, and, eventually solicitations for donations as alumni while they are still paying off loans for the initial investment. And at the same time, significant teaching loads are passed to underpaid and overworked contingent faculty. This is not to say that contingent faculty are bad teachers—-many are excellent—-but that while the cost to the student goes up the combination of financial precarity and insufficient resources impedes the ability of many of their teachers to help them reach their potential. Something like 75% of all faculty teaching in colleges are now non-tenure track positions, working under a range of titles and for a median pay of 2700 dollars per course.

These economic issues are fundamentally important to the future of higher education, a top-heavy system that feels many days like it is teetering precipitously. It is a matter of when, not if, something is going to give.

But that is not what prompted this post.

In response to a recent report on the issues surrounding contingent labor and a report that 79% of anthropology PhDs do not gain employment in tenure-track positions, I saw the inevitable response that the solution to this problem is to reduce production of PhDs. The idea is that this is a crisis created by supply far outstripping demand, which is true enough, but doesn’t acknowledge the underlying structures that are shaping demand.

The optimistic, if morbid, line even when I started graduate school in 2009 was that it was just a matter of waiting for the rapidly aging generations of professors to give up their posts one way or another. Not that the job market would be easy, but that there would be a wave of jobs that would make it easier. Before long it became apparent that the great recession of 2008, which struck right as I was graduating from college, marked an inflection point for higher education. Many of those older faculty members were clinging to their jobs not out of malice, selfishness, or obliviousness, but because they believed that their positions would not be replaced when they left. They were right. Their courses are taught by contingent faculty and the tenure lines largely boarded up and forgotten. This is the new normal.

These systemic changes are not unique to higher education, I should add. I’ve recently been reading Sarah Kendzior’s A View From Flyover Country where she talks at length about the seismic changes to the American economy after 2008 as companies looked for ways to remain profitable to stockholders. Universities are a little bit different because many schools are among the institutions most affected by government divestment, but there are many broad similarities.

Nevertheless, I am not in favor of a widespread slashing of graduate programs.

First, reducing the number of PhDs is not going to solve the labor crisis. There is already a long line of qualified candidate. In 2012, two schools, Harvard University and the University of Colorado received backlash after stating in the job ad that candidates more than a few years after graduation need not apply. Moreover, cutting positions in graduate programs does nothing to address the structural factors underlying the decline of tenured positions. In fact, cuts to graduate programs could conceivably accelerate the cuts to full-time positions because graduate programs are one of the justifications to keep tenured faculty.

Second, the remaining graduate programs would invariably exist in a handful of elite schools, which already produce most of the graduates who win the tenure-track job lottery. This list of elite schools is not immutable, but tends to favor those that already have large endowments. As is true elsewhere in American society, fluctuations to financial fortune tend to be much larger for schools without these inheritances.

In theory, limiting graduate education to wealthy schools would create a more ethical environment in terms of pay for graduate students, as well as provide them adequate research support, but it also develops scholars and teachers in an environment radically different from where most professors work—not to mention that their students will be coming from. Like with my comments about adjuncts above, this is not meant to denigrate people who go through elite institutions, many of whom are deeply concerned with issues of precarity, austerity and who do not come from privileged backgrounds. At the same time, reducing spots reduces the opportunity for people who are not already introduced to academic life, either during their undergraduate education or through individual mentor-ship, usually by someone with connections to those schools. Similarly, for as much scholarship comes out of people working in top-tier programs, they cannot cover everything. As in any number of fields, visibility and representation matter. A retreat toward the proverbial ivory tower reinforces the perception of a barrier between the intellectual elite and everyone else.

There are deep ethical issues with how graduate program in the humanities approach training, regardless of what the future of the professoriate looks like. There needs to be greater acknowledgement and preparation for so-called alt-ac jobs, and a support system in place to help people find employment with livable wages. That is, there is needs to be a reconsideration of the purpose of graduate school, with teaching in college being just one potential outcome.

(To be fair, this is easier said than done and I see programs coming to grips with this reality and beginning to implement changes, but too little and too slowly, and without enough action to counteract the emotional trauma of the current system.)

But there is also a larger point. People pursue advanced degrees for all sorts of reasons, including interest. This is a good thing. I may sound impossibly, naively idealistic, but I want to live in a society that supports and values education not out of a desire for credentialism but because these opportunities are where creative innovation is born. Eliminating graduate programs beyond those in well-funded schools makes sense if you look at the problems facing higher education as a simple supply-and-demand numbers game, but in fact threatens to realize some of the worst stereotypes about academia.

First day fragments

My fall semester begins in earnest today, with the first session for both of my classes. I don’t have a single back-to-school post idea, but rather a bunch of loosely connected ones, so decided to go with a fragmentary format.

“I didn’t get everything done” is a standard lament for academics come late August, bemoaning some combination of the cult of productivity, human limitations, and the difficulties of researching during the school year. I am no exception. I set an ambitious schedule for reading scholarship beyond my immediate research, but only managed to read a handful of books and articles, and a couple of books on teaching.

There are a couple of explanations for this failure. One is that the summer quickly became very busy, with multiple family trips that had less down-time than anticipated, meaning that there was neither opportunity for reading nor for a deep recharge of my batteries. Another was that I taught an intensive summer World History course in June, so much of my spare reading went toward preparing for class. A third was that seemingly every spare moment around these time commitments was sucked up by working on revising my dissertation as a book. My goal for that was to have it under review by the start of class, but I missed that deadline, too. At least I am in a position to meet my revised goal of August 31 for that one…

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There has been a movement in recent years to normalize failure, particularly in academia, leading to people sharing their failures on Twitter over the last week. I mentioned there that I respect the movement, and appreciate the baseball analogy where if you’re a batter and only “fail” (make an out) at the plate six out of every ten times, you belong in the hall of fame. (There are obviously other statistics from baseball that could make that more or less extreme. If you’re a pitcher and batters swing and miss just 20% of the time, you’re incredible, but if that is the percentage of the time you throw strikes, then you probably quit playing in little league.) I respect the impulse to normalize failure because it is inevitably going to happen, regardless of how generous and kind the academy becomes. Everyone is going to experience article/grant/abstract/job/proposal rejections for a host of reasons. Sometimes those reasons are good (the project needs more work), sometimes they are petty, and a lot of the time is a simple numbers game that has almost nothing to do with what was proposed.

My shadow CV includes all of these things, including four article rejections, two more revise and resubmits that were later accepted, at least seven paper abstracts rejected that I can think of off hand, too many funding applications for fellowships and travel grants to count them all. And I am only a little more than a year removed from graduating with my PhD.

At the same time, I found the push to normalize, share, and celebrate failure on social media hard to handle. The main reason is that while failure is normal in the academy, and rejections can be handled deftly with an eye toward improving the project for the next time around, it is also a sign of privilege to be able to reflect on this Shadow CV. It is coming from someone still “in the game”, as it were, and I heard with every round of shares “this is what you *should* have been applying for.” As in, your failures themselves are inadequate because the “stars” fail bigger and better.

Then pair this with the part I left out of my Shadow CV that are the all jobs I’ve applied to without making the long list. The Shadow CV is meant to normalize failure so that people can better overcome the natural fear of it and thereby reduce anxiety, but when mixed with too few academic jobs to go around and the sheer amount of time that applying for them takes, it just exacerbated mine.

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I’m looking forward to teaching both of my classes this semester. One I am teaching my own syllabus for the second time, the other I am teaching as the sole instructor for the first time. I had the chance to teach on my own a little bit during graduate school, but this is my second year of continuously teaching my own courses and reading up on pedagogy, so I am now to synthesize some principles for my classroom.

First Principle: Learning, not grades. I do not care about grades beyond making sure that I have created a reasonable and achievable grade scale for the class. My goal as a teacher is to help students develop practical skills such as writing and the ability to understand the world through critical analysis and synthesizing information. Toward that end, I believe that many common assessment tools that are built for scale are next to useless in actually assessing learning. I design my classes around assignments that require students to develop arguments through writing and that build on each other so that students can show improvement in tasks that are not easy.

Second Principle: Empathy. Students are adults who have a larger number of demands on them than even I did when entering school fifteen years ago. I aspire to treat them like adults with responsibilities, just one of which is my class. College is “the real world” where students are on their own for the first time, and I want to be a mentor/coach/guide. This means having empathy, and encouraging them to take ownership of their education by talking with me when they have a conflict or need help.

Third Principle: Engagement. “Meaningful learning experiences” is a hot topic, though my mother assures me that this has been the key phrase for many decades now. Every class is going to be selective in the material it covers, so I see my job being to give students the tools to learn more and to pique their curiosity to want to do so. This means developing activities and assignments that require engagement, through games, debates, and projects where students take ownership of the material. This has not been the easiest task for me as someone who found history books thrilling in high school, but something that I am committed to improving in my own teaching.

There are others, but these are my first three.

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Without further ado, let the semester begin!

Small Teaching – James Lang

Small Teaching is another book that people recommended to me earlier this year when I was looking for resources on how to improve my teaching. Previously I read Jay Howard’s Discussion in the College Classroom and Mark Carnes’ Minds on Fire.

Let me start by airing a beef with James Lang. Small Teaching derives its name from the baseball philosophy “small ball,” which basically says that you don’t need to hit a lot of home runs to win games if you take small actions (singles, not striking out, good base-running) that manufacture runs. These are the baseball fundamentals every coach tells their youth team when they don’t have the same raw strength, and Small Teaching opens with the story of how the Kansas City Royals recently had a two-year run of success by employing small ball.

The Royals make for a good story, and the team and national media certainly gave credit to small ball, but Lang’s version of the narrative underplays how much of the Royal’s success either predicted the direction baseball would go (a light’s out bullpen) or zigged while other teams zagged (they struck out far fewer than any team in the league both years). In other words: small ball helped, but it didn’t tell the whole story.

In fact, this is an apt metaphor for Small Teaching.

Small Teaching is a book born from Lang’s years of giving pedagogy workshops, with the stated purpose of providing brief classroom activities, one-time interventions, and small modifications to course design that a) require minimal preparation or grading and b) improve the classroom experience. Lang’s intent is to make the book simultaneously worthy of reading in full and of keeping around as a reference work.

Spread across three sections, eight of the nine chapters are organized in the same basic structure. First Lang provides the theoretical and scientific bases for the chapter; then he offers models from his own classroom experiences and those of others; finally he concludes with the general principles that synthesize the theories and models.

There are a lot of good ideas in Small Teaching, including studies that confirm what I’ve observed in the classroom (e.g. the inefficiencies in a lot of assessment methods that are disconnected from both course goals and previous assignments) and others that I employ from years of tutoring that I hadn’t considered bringing to the classroom (the value of predicting and self-explaining for getting students to the “A-Ha moment”.) I was particularly taken by the first chapter on retrieving, which argues that while long-term memory is effectively unlimited, the ability to retrieve that information that improves with practice, and the chapters on motivating and growing (7 and 8), which focus on treating students as human beings who need to be stimulated and encouraged. The research Lang cites in these sections points to some of these issues being outside the hands of the professor, but there are still compelling reasons to not compound the problems.

I learned something in every chapter, whether about the science of learning (which is in the subtitle) or an idea, and frequently found myself jotting down the quick tips for later reference. Lang says that he is all for big changes like those Carnes proposed in Minds on Fire, but is more interested in easy but practical solutions. Like with small ball, the idea here is to maximize the resources at the disposal rather than calling for radical change. It is in this vein that chapter 9 (Expanding) breaks the mold by offering ways to transcend small changes and lists additional resources, suggesting that people commit to reading one new pedagogy book per year and one article per week from one of the suggested sites. Overall, the combination of practical recommendations with evidence from studies that demonstrate why these suggestions are beneficial made it a compelling read.

In sum: The greatest sign of this book’s success is the disconnect between what I thought while reading it and my notes. While I was reading Small Teaching the suggestions seemed profound; looking over my notes I found myself wondering why I didn’t think of these things earlier. Small Teaching is not a straightforward “how-to” book, but was an immensely useful to think with now that I am starting to put together my course schedules for the fall semester.

Minds on Fire – Mark C. Carnes

Earlier this year I crowd-sourced a list of teaching materials. Now that the fall semester is imminent, I am finally getting a chance to sit down with the list again in order to prepare for my courses.

The subtitle of Minds on Fire is its mission statement: “how role-immersion games transform college.” The book itself is a manifesto for Reacting to the Past, serving to defend and justify the games developed by the consortium.

Carnes’ core contention in Minds on Fire, and the underlying principal behind Reacting to the Past, is that students are engaged in “subversive world[s] of play” that range from video games to Zombies v. Humans to fraternity events. On the other end of the spectrum “all classes are kind of boring.” The solution, Carnes argues, is to harness the subversive worlds of play toward academic ends; that is, give students competitions and games that tap into their natural inclination for this subversive behavior and get them to do more work without thinking about it as work. Teachers facilitate the games, but then step back and empower the students to take the reins.

After setting out these principals, Carnes dedicates much of the book to laying out the advantages and countering the criticisms of using games in the classroom. There are chapters on how Reacting games teach morality and leadership and spontaneously produces community, things which are often touted as the purpose of a humanistic education or baked into college mission statements. Another section rejects the positivist contention that the past is a fixed stream and that opening the possibility of changing the past undermines history education. In each instance, the philosophical and pedagogical ideas are buttressed by excerpts from interviews with students who went through Reacting courses.

Minds on Fire is a convincing read, though I should say that I went in predisposed to think that as someone who has always balanced a fascination with history books with hours of subversive play. Carnes acknowledges, but also skims past, some courses are not going to be suitable for Reacting games and that not every Reacting exercise will be a raucous success. Nor is there much acknowledgement that Reacting is a radical proposal that seeks to achieve a fairly standard aim: significant learning experiences. Reacting classes, by not seeming like school work, give students ownership over their education and “trick” them into having experiences that cannot be faked or cheated.

There are other means to this same end, but there are also numerous classes where Reacting is a particularly effective way to grapple with issues, and I think it is no coincidence that some of the success stories came from Freshman Seminar or great ideas sorts of classes. I also think that long-running games could be particularly successful in discussion sections as a complement to lectures.

In sum: there were times that this book was too much of a manifesto, but while not every course needs to be a Reacting game, but every course can take lessons from Minds on Fire.

AP World History (Ancient)

The College Board received push back a couple of weeks ago when it announced changes to the AP World History curriculum, making the course begin in 1450. Critics online gnashed their teeth about a number of things, raising the legitimate concern that this would further marginalize the pre-modern world and that the chosen date, such that it meant anything, would default to a Euro-centric world view. The board responded this week by announcing that the new date is 1200, not 1450. Critics gnashed their teeth, albeit also in befuddlement at the seemingly arbitrary date.

(For what it is worth, the College Board’s stated explanation for the date, that it will allow “a study of the civilizations in Africa, the Americas, and Asia,” does check out. Now Genghis Khan, Mansa Musa, and the rise of the Aztecs all fall within the range. 1200 starts the course in media res, but that was inevitable when you put a start-date on a course.)

Reading the College Board’s announcement about the changes, I am of two minds. First, I am sympathetic when they say, based on the feedback from teachers that the current model is unsustainable because they are trying to do too much.

The current AP World History course and exam attempt to cover 10,000 years of human history—from the Paleolithic Era to the present. In contrast, colleges manage the unique breadth of world history by spreading the content across multiple courses.

The announcement is a little misleading when it says what college courses do and do not do—I did have a World History from the beginning of time to 1960 course in college—but, from the other side of the table, these broad strokes courses are incredibly hard to teach. Even “just” teaching a world history or Western Civilization before 1500 is covering a laughably enormous swathe of time, which is also the reason I have no pity for the US history professors who complain that there needs to be another mitotic division of their survey sequence, taking it from two to three courses. It has, however, been my position for a while that if I were made Grand Poobah of History Curriculum, I would invert the current paradigm and only teach the survey courses after students had been exposed to historical methods in specialized courses. The idea here is that by going from the specific to the general rather than the reverse, the students are better prepared to appreciate historiographical arguments and big themes.

The problem with this approach is that it is not scale-able as part of a standard test scheme meant to grant college credit. The situation the College Board finds itself in is quite the bind. It needs a single survey course to stand as a substitute for a college course because fragmenting the courses would neuter its ability to be a standard test and therefore undermine credibility. At the same time, the enormity of the course makes it difficult to teach the material in such a way that prepares the students to succeed at the work asked of them on the test. I don’t love this incentive structure with regard to student testing, but given the incentive structure in college courses I at least understand it. Moreover, in looking at old sample questions, the test itself isn’t bad in terms of the skills it is designed to measure. But it is also a lot. Obviously something needs to change.

This does not, however, mean that I agree with the changes the College Board made. My main issue is the decision to prioritize modernity, particularly because the AP European History, which starts in 1450, has already done the same thing. At this point I could start declaiming, ridiculing the absurdity of teaching a world history course that takes for granted the miracle that is agriculture, that conveniently forgets that Rome laid the groundwork for modern Europe, or that doesn’t bother trying to understand the founding and development of *any* of the world’s major religions. Yes, there are a couple of things that happened after 1200 (or 1400) that are important, but these are all built on precedents and developments that came before.

The college board has put out that it is open to creating a second AP World History (Ancient) course, which, despite the awkwardness of the name (congratulations, Richard I of England, you’re an ancient king!), is a fine ambition. But here is the thing: I am skeptical of how quickly yet another AP course can be developed and instituted, let alone how widely it would be picked up. Things have changed since I was in high school, but when I was coming up I didn’t even have access to one AP World History course, let alone two. I got my start with classes on all things ancient through my Latin teacher. Now I am fortunate enough to teach ancient history to college students and am consistently impressed with how many students from all sorts of disciplines come out to take my classes.

Maybe I am wrong and this interest will prompt dedicated high school teachers to make the second course come to fruition, but in the meantime I cannot help but think of this as a missed opportunity on the part of the College Board. There had to be a change to the AP World History course, but instead of even temporarily erasing antiquity, it should have kept the earlier portions, perhaps as an AP World History (Foundations), and developed (Modern) as the secondary offering.