This was one of those weeks when it felt as though I got nothing done. Everything takes too much time, and then I am pulled in too many directions at once. This is the story of most semesters, if I’m being honest. So I didn’t manage to finish either my academic book for the week or any of the four draft posts in various stages of completion for this site, and I am trying to resist adding anything else to my plate. At this point I would like to focus on making more time for the things that I’m already doing. After all, as Oliver Burkemann argued in Six Thousand Weeks and the late Randy Pausch talks about in his time management lecture, our time is finite so we should pay more attention to how we spend it. Squeezing every last ounce of efficiency or sacrificing sleep (as I have done in the past) on the altar of rat race culture is both not sustainable and means enjoying life less in the meantime.
Admittedly, I am very bad at this. I have too many interests and a bad habit of saying yes to things before considering how much time they will take, but I now recognize this as an issue. I have more thoughts on these issues and their intersection with academic hobbies and living to work, but I’ll save them for a subsequent post. For now, just a range of links from the week.
This week’s varia:
An excellent blog post from Alexandra Sills that addresses both the academics who are demanding to debate people on the Joe Rogan Experience and the ones who are condescending about even the idea of engaging the public. Her post reminds me that I really ought to get back to answering posts on Ask Historians Reddit, but I don’t use Reddit for anything else and there are only so many hours in the day.
Pasts Imperfects this week profiles a new book on ancient art, and public writing on global antiquity, including the genetic dispersal of cats.
Jacob Browning and Yann Lecun at Noema had a fascinating essay last August about AI, language, and learning, pointing out that the algorithms can mimic language, but it cannot discern between the words and the actual objects that the words describe. But there is also this: “Outside the humanities especially, being able to talk about something is often less useful or important than the nitty-gritty skills needed to get things to work right.”
A new lawsuit alleges that ServSafe, a training platform for restaurant workers, directs money that workers (sometimes reimbursed, often not) pay for certification to the National Restaurant Association, a trade lobby group that pushes legislation that often hurts workers.
NPR profiles The Mindful Drinking Festival, which is dedicated to alcohol free cocktails. The founders don’t advocate for a return to prohibition, but expanding the range of what is considered normal for a night out.
In absolutely grotesque dereliction of responsibility by the British government, unaccompanied children are being abducted and trafficked from the hotels the British government has been putting them up. One hotel saw 136 of the 600 children who passed through it get abducted.
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.
Pardon me while I roll my eyes at this headline: “This 22-year-old is trying to save us from ChatGPT before it changes writing forever.” The student, a senior at Princeton, is making an app “to identify and incentivize originality in human writing.” Whatever that means. Maybe I need to write a follow up to my ChatGPT post from last semester: AI is a digital and information literacy problem, not an existential crisis.
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 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.
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.
The last few days before the start of a semester exist in a strange state of limbo. On the one hand, these are days free from the rat race of the semester. On the other, they are also the last opportunity to prepare syllabuses and other course materials that brim with an exhilarating cocktail of potential and uncertainty.
I am feeling this state more than usual this semester because of how the last semester ended. I have been thinking about my course policies since in the middle of last semester and pecking away at my syllabuses for weeks, but these documents were nowhere near ready for distribution. Then, on Monday, we learned that one of my colleagues won’t be able to teach this semester. This development had little bearing on my classes other than to fill up my last few open seats, but there was also a suggestion that I might be asked to pick up an online US history survey either in the place of or on top of my other courses. More than the challenge of planning and deploying an online asynchronous class in a week, what I struggled with this week was the uncertainty around which courses I needed to be preparing.
My course list did not change, in the end, and I returned to the syllabuses I had at various states of completion. And to the more usual types of uncertainty: whether the course schedule will prove manageable, whether the readings I assigned will elicit the response I’m hoping for, and whether the tweaks to my course policies will work. Adding to this uncertainty is that I have an entirely new slate of courses, which offers both the struggle and the thrill of invention.
I don’t teach until Wednesday, though, so I’m spending this weekend and the first few days of next week putting all my ducks in a row.
Erin Bartram published her comments from this year’s American Historical Association annual meeting at Contingent Mag. The piece is something everyone working in higher education should read. She condemns the AHA for inactivity while the field collapses and highlights a number of interlocking issues with contingency. But there is also this incisive line about burnout: “Like all hierarchical systems, adjunctification has always harmed the people in the middle of the hierarchy as well—because, of course, tenured and tenure-track faculty are not the top of this hierarchy. “Burnout” is a serious and growing problem, especially for scholars of marginalized groups; it’s making you all miserable, and leading some to leave the profession altogether. But let’s be clear: this “burnout” that secure scholars are feeling is phantom pain where their colleagues should be.”
Gas stoves are a major contributor to indoor air pollution, the Consumer Product Safety Commission said, and that this pollution is a major contributor to childhood asthma. This has naturally led to outrage that “the government” is coming for your gas stove (they are not). I prefer cooking with gas, at least compared to the crummy electric stoves I have often contended with. But I’m also not opposed to investing in an induction or high-quality electric set-up, especially if I can get a fancy pizza oven or finally build an outdoor wood-fired setup.
A new survey reveals the pervasiveness of antisemitic tropes about Jews in the United States. 70% responded that they believe Jews “stick together more than other Americans,” but, even more worryingly to my mind, were the 39% who believe Jews to be more loyal to Israel than to the United States, 36% who responded that Jews don’t share their values, and roughly 25% who affirmed belief in tropes about Jews having power in business. Many of these tropes are not exclusively deployed against Jews, but their stickiness is scary and this poll points to their resurgence among young people.
I conceive of these introductions as a mini-essay covering something that happened in the week or some issue that I have been mulling over for the previous few days. For this week, I think a peek behind the curtain is in order.
These posts, which I started about two months ago, serve several functions. They force me to read a little more widely than I otherwise would do, while supplying a recommended reading list, allowing me to editorialize a little bit, and providing the flair of what I’m reading and listening to in a given week. I start compiling potential articles for the following week almost as soon as the previous one goes up on Saturday, putting them in a new draft. My goal is to find one thing to include each day, but, in reality, these posts reflect what I read that week. Sometimes that means more blog posts, sometimes more articles. Sometimes I get busy. I also don’t like just including the story du jour, especially when it is still unfolding.
And, sometimes, all of these things happen at once.
I am writing this introduction on Friday evening from a hotel room in New Orleans where several things are happening at once:
Members of the House of Representatives are voting for the fourteenth time on who will be Speaker of the House, making this the fifth or sixth longest process in US History, and the longest since before the US Civil War (he did not win on this ballot, either).
The contestants of the Miss Universe Pageant are wandering around the hotel in gowns and sashes, filming various things.
The AIA-SCS annual meeting is taking place (I’m unwinding in my room rather than attending receptions).
To say that this week has been distracting is an understatement. I have written about this conference in the past, and will do so again next week as part of getting back to business as usual if I find that I have something worth saying once I’ve had a chance to collect my thoughts.
This week’s varia:
Pro Publica has a new report on professors muzzling their courses or scrambling to change the class descriptions (which often are designed with the intention of attracting students) in the wake of DeSantis’ new rules in Florida. These laws are designed to curtail academic speech and impede education. In an entirely unsurprising detail, tenured faculty in some schools are pushing the risky classes off on contingent faculty. I get that this is a risky political climate, but I have a hard time fighting for the position of tenured faculty who treat contingent folks as expendable.
Jonathan Wilson has a post that asks whether higher education administrators actually understand education. He closes with a relatable sentiment: “I’m just tired of suspecting that U.S. higher education’s overall future is in the care of people who don’t even know what a college education is, let alone have any inclination to make the case for it before the American public.”
Ellie Mackin-Roberts has an excellent piece on pedagogical uses for ChatGPT that I’m just now getting to. I’m more likely to use the “correct an AI-generated essay” as an in-class exercise than as an assignment, but it is the one in which I see the brightest potential.
Vox has a good breakdown of why the extreme rainfall in California will not alleviate the water crisis after years of megadrought. The article notes that this rain will also disrupt flood-control infrastructure and points out that if this is a new normal, California will need to retool systems to capture this water rather than relying on the decreased snowpack.
From December in the Washington Post, a profile about the chaos in Somalia caused by President Trump pulling US troops from the country. I’m a little cautious of these stories given the reporting on similar operations from Afghanistan, but a line about comments from Danab (Somali special forces) that, on top of expertise, a US presence insulates them from political leaders who might turn them against civilian protesters and political opponents points to the complexity of the issue.
NPR has an examination of Guru Jagat, a popular yoga instructor who her followers described as “real” and “grounded.” Then she became a believer in Q-Anon during the pandemic. The article connects the spiritual teachings of yoga to the way in which “truth” becomes revealed in these conspiracies.
Matt Gaetz apparently despises Kevin McCarthy, in no small part because he feels that McCarthy did not adequately stand up for him amid the sex-trafficking probe, even though McCarthy did not strip him of his committee appointments.
Dylan Scott at Vox reflects on the obsession with American football in the wake of Damar Hamlin’s injury on Monday. His obvious conclusion is that the football industrial complex works hard to downplay the undeniable violence in the game and that more catastrophic injuries and even deaths will occur so long as people keep watching. You could take the story back even further. In my US history survey, we spend a little time talking about how they changed the game in response to growing public outcry about players being killed on the field.
Album of the Week: Jukebox the Ghost, “Cheers”
Currently Reading: P. Djèlí Clark, A Master of Djinn (reread, this time in preparation for class)
I write enough about myself this time of year through my end-of year reflections (writing and books are up, with a general meditation and resolutions to come) that I don’t feel the need for short essay about whatever I’m thinking about on a Saturday morning this week.
Happy New Year.
This week’s varia:
Peter Kidd documents manuscript provenance on his own blog. I’m not a regular reader, but his post this week caught my attention. For his tenth anniversary post, Kidd relates his exchange with the secretary of an author whose recent book appears to plagiarize his blog. The conversation includes denial, threats of lawyers (not on his part), and the claim that since his blog isn’t significant enough to warrant citation because it is just a blog. The last is particularly galling. Blogs might not pass through peer review and come out through academic publishers, but that doesn’t mean that they are always inconsequential. To paraphrase something that Dr. Sarah Bond has been saying for a number of years now: writing in academic blogs is an exercise in public scholarship that can help ensure the vitality of a field, but they will only be considered legitimate if people cite them. At the same time, plagiarism is still plagiarism. If you use an idea, cite it.
Since the original post went up, the publisher appears to have made the PDF of the book in question unavailable, digitally altered a bunch of the online material, and questions have emerged about both the staff and the physical office of the publisher. People associated with RECEPTIO responded aggressively with reverse accusations, threats to involve the police, and attempts to “anonymously” harass and dox Kidd in an attempt to preserve what increasingly appears to be a scam to funnel grant money through and convince people to spend fees for workshops at this “research institute.” Kidd has written severaladditionalblogpoststhat address specific parts of her responses. I have seen more than one academic demand a movie about one of the most flagrant cases of scholarly malpractice that I can recall and how the whole thing unraveled in just under a week as researchers trained in the very particular skills of identifying how manuscripts influence one another and in spotting misinformation turned their attentions to RECEPTIO.
Hamline University has non-renewed the contract of a contingent professor of religion who offered a lesson in an online class about historical Muslim representations of the Prophet Muhammad after a student complained. The Hamline Oracle has the fullest description of the incident and points out the steps that the professor took to offer content warnings and to allow observant Muslims to opt out of seeing the images. The administration is alleging that the lesson constitutes Islamophobia Rather than standing behind the subject matter expert, or, you know, historical reality, the administration chose to cut ties with the faculty member and could do so with no repercussion because the person in question had no job security. This is one of the major issues with contingent contracts in higher education right now. I also recommend Amna Khalid’s essay explaining why the administration’s actions offend her both as a professor and as a muslim.
A court has ruled that the Marine Corps cannot reject Sikh men who refuse to shave their beards based on their religious beliefs. The Marines claimed that these rules were a matter of national security, but the court sided with the plaintiffs who alleged that the policy reflects “stereotypes about what Americans should look like.”
Southwest Airlines cancelled thousands of flights this week. Weather is partly to blame, but people in the know are saying that Southwest’s antiquated scheduling system and staffing problems bear more responsibility. Pete Buttigieg had asserted that conditions were getting better, but 34 state attorneys general had written to him urging him to impose fines for airlines with avoidable cancellations and delays, something he has not done. Naturally, money that could have gone toward modernizing their systems has been spent on executive bonuses, dividends, stock buybacks, and lobbying.
One of two things happens when I submit grades at the end of the semester. Sometimes, words start flowing, as though they have been building up behind a dam of grading that has now opened its sluice gate. Other times, I emerge from the final push in a fog that takes several days to dissipate. The harder the semester, the higher the odds of the second outcome.
This was an exceedingly difficult semester for me and its conclusion coincided with a storm front that brought both ice and snow ahead of a holiday weekend, all of which made settling in for a few days of inactivity an attractive proposition. I’ve relished how much time I’ve been able to spend reading the past few days—in addition to the lengthy round up below, I’m on my third novel since the end of the semester—and I’m getting back to my usual routine of baking bread (sweet treats can wait until there is less candy in the house). I suppose that this is how holidays are supposed to go. There will be time to return to more substantive posts next week and in the new year.
Merry Christmas and Happy Chanukah, since the pairing is actually appropriate this year.
This week’s varia:
This was a neat story about how John Gompers repatriated a number of antiquities that had been acquired by his grandmother, the Dutch archaeologist Gisela Schneider-Herrmann, and were now sitting in his mother’s garage. He started by Googling “How do you repatriate antiquities?” If a random citizen can do it, then surely so can major institutions since in his insistence that objects belong in museums, Dr. Jones leaves out a critical piece of information: where that museum is located.
Staying on the theme of repatriation, Germany has returned 22 of the Benin Bronzes to Nigeria (BBC). These are some of my favorite objects from Africa, but the overwhelming majority of them were looted by European colonizers, removed from the walls of buildings where they told the history of the people, and taken European and American museums. This is a good start.
“I love Higher Education. It isn’t Loving me Back.” Continuing with the theme from last week, Hannah Leffingwell writes in Jacobin about the New School Strike and the cultish atmosphere of academia. I particularly like how she describes her realization that a favorite professor from undergrad was leaving because her contract was up: “I was too young and naïve to understand what she was up against: a system that demanded her full and unwavering commitment to “the profession” while offering only temporary, part-time work in return — or, if she was lucky, a grueling tenure-track position in a state where she had no family or friends and probably didn’t want to live.” I often fear that pulling the curtain back with students will only lead to more disillusion, but I also think that students deserve to know what is happening at the institutions where they are studying.
An interesting piece about peer review by Adam Mastroianni at his Substack. His argument is that “peer review” in the sciences, which developed as a means to prove to funding bodies that the experiments being run were worthwhile, offers at best a marginal benefit to the actual product. More frequently, he argues, it both fails to catch serious flaws and inhibits potentially valuable research. Coming from a field that straddles the humanities and social sciences, I am sympathetic to some of the frustrations with peer review, especially when it is used as a means of gate-keeping, but ditching peer review isn’t going to bring back great discoveries. Moreover, by the end of the piece, Mastroianni acknowledges the value of receiving feedback with an anecdote about a recent paper he published online at his site, making this a critique of the specific peer review apparatus and the rhythms of academic work.
This week in their new newsletter Modern Medieval, Matt Gabriele and David Perry, authors of The Bright Ages, write about the shallow “medievalism” of the architectural trend “Castlecore.”
Kelly Baker, in her newsletter Cold Takes writes about the existential crisis of being a writer who didn’t write for most of a year. I adore Baker’s memoir Grace Period, which is a deeply-moving accounting of her falling out of academia. I’m glad that she seems to have found her words again.
At The Conversation, Casey Fiesler offers perspective on the migration away from Twitter as compared with previous platforms. The short version: no platform will replicate Twitter, but the communities that form in one place tend to be resilient as members find themselves in other spaces.
From The Washington Post, an article with the title “The crisis of student mental health is much vaster than we realize.” Speaking as a teacher at the college level, yup. However, I always get a little bit leery about articles that center mental health services as the solution. They’re important, no doubt, but too often I’ve seen the availability of those services as either as a crutch, or their absence as an excuse, to avoid confronting larger systemic causes of the mental health problem.
A long read in Pro Publica, Lynzy Billing reports on the so-called Zero Units, Afghan forces trained and supported by the CIA. These units conducted night time raids in Afghan villages under the pretense of hunting militia leaders, a practice that carried over from the Vietnam War and with the predictable results of hundreds of civilian casualties. She quotes a US army ranger succinctly identifying the core problem with the US strategy in the country: “You go on night raids, make more enemies, then you gotta go on more night raids for the more enemies you now have to kill.”
George Santos, Republican congressman-elect from New York, has come under scrutiny for having lied about his biography during the campaign, including both his education and work history. The latest fiction seems to be his family history, which, he claims, includes Jewish family members that fled from Ukraine to Belgium, survived the Holocaust, and then ended up in Brazil. Except that there is no evidence of this heritage (CNN).
I’m a recent convert to e-books, but I have recently found the reading experience on Kindle Paperwhite both easy and convenient, so I was both interested and disappointed to read this blog post suggesting that Amazon will be phasing out the devices.
Album of the week: Old Bear Mountain, “On the Run”
Now reading: Anthony Doerr, Cloud Cuckoo Land; Michael J. Decker, The Sasanian Empire at War
Winter appears to be setting in for real in this corner of Northern Missouri. I am looking out a window at snowflakes bouncing on the wind while I write these words and it has been below consistently below freezing for the past few days, though the forecast is calling for a slight reprieve for a few days before the next polar vortex sets in for the upcoming holiday. I happen to like winter weather, don’t mind the cold, and am not daunted by a few flurries, but I have also been finding myself sipping my tea and wondering how this weather is going to affect my running since this is the longest stretch I have ever managed to run outdoors in my life.
The other topic I find running through my mind on this Saturday morning is related to the Jon Lauck and Steven Mintz links in this week’s roundup (see below). While the job market for history PhDs has been somewhere between bad and very bad for a long time, Lauck offers data that suggests that it is positively catastrophic: of 1799 history PhDs granted between 2019 and 2020, only 175 are “full-time faculty members,” and those numbers are warped by the years of backlog leading up to 2019 that caused people like me (2017 PhD) to still be job hunting. The issue, fundamentally, is that colleges and universities are not hiring to replace retirees. Lauck provides a sample of Midwestern universities, including both my PhD-granting institution and my current employer, that have cut 34% of their faculty lines on average over the past ten years. This is bad. However, as often emerges in these debates, the data is also a little misleading. Truman State (my employer) in his data went from 15 tenured or tenure track historians to 4, but the latter number doesn’t count me or the other two full-time year-to-year faculty members in the department. It is still a catastrophic decline and it is extremely difficult to build sustainable programs that attract students on the back of faculty who don’t know whether they will be teaching the following year, but it also removes nearly half of our faculty from the conversation.
Likewise, while I share the sentiment found online that big professional organizations and a lot of secure faculty at prestigious institutions are complacent about the state of the field in ways that contribute to its degradation, I can say with certainty that my tenured colleagues are furious that their staffing requests to replace tenure lines are routinely approved for year-to-year hires. This is short-term thinking on the part of our institutions, but it is also the state of play. Even beyond self-interest, this is why I have dedicated so much time and energy to contingent faculty issues over the past few years. Tenure is a wonderful idea, but I think that the future of the field requires urgent action to change both perceptions and working conditions of the people who didn’t win that particular lottery. To that end, I am fortunate to work at an institution with colleagues both on and off the tenure line who agree and an active AAUP chapter that has been fighting to create a more sustainable future.
This week’s varia:
Researchers mapping the floor of Lake Mjøsa, Norway’s largest lake, looking for dumped munitions discovered a shipwreck that could date to as early as the 1300s.
At Everyday Orientalism, Rachel Yuen-Collingridge writes about her decades as a contingent scholar. She concludes: “Let us be able to look upon eclectic, experimental, flexible professional identities and pursuits as signs of vitality not of a lack of focus, ambition, and seriousness. If we truly want to change contingency or contribute to its change, perhaps a good starting point is to challenge the cultures of contingency and the hierarchies which feed upon it.” Shorter: we need to change the structural insecurity and pay equity issues, but those substantive changes are impossible without changing the perception that contingent faculty are less than full time ones.
Pasts Imperfects is a great weekly newsletter dealing with antiquity. This week (12.15.22): Hpone Myint Tu has a short piece and reading lists about animals in the ancient Mediterranean, along with snippets from Sarah Bond’s recent article at Hyperallergic about new research by Jordan Pickett into the intersection of Christianity and Roman baths and a recent article about excavations at the Aksumite city of Adulis in modern Eritrea.
Chanukah is coming up and Alana Vincent has a really nice piece at Time about the rituals around a holiday that is both minor and “the primary festival of Jewish visibility.” My favorite observation is that the current celebration is one that the Maccabees themselves would have hated.
Jon K. Lauck offers a stark assessment of the state of history departments in the Midwest in the Middle West Review (from September). I don’t know that his prescription is viable and think both that the causes are a little more varied and the some of the data about support for history softer than is implied here, but, speaking both as a graduate and current faculty member of programs mentioned in this survey: he’s not wrong in the big picture. Lauck’s data provides the foundation for Steven Mintz’ latest column at Inside Higher Ed, where he, not unreasonably, suggests that we’re seeing an “end of history” in the sense that it is a discipline literally being downsized.
If you’ve ever wanted to hear the phrase “the first time anyone ever asserted a First Amendment right to see the president’s son’s penis, an argument that the Framers likely did not anticipate,” then Adam Serwer in the Atlantic has you covered. Starting from the so-called “Twitter Files” being published by Elon Musk’s flunkies and the issue of stories about Hunter Biden’s laptop that Twitter suppressed because they contained nude images, Serwer expands out into a compelling discussion about how the conservative movement is warping interpretations of the first amendment and offers a narrow defense of social media companies.
German special forces raided more than 150 properties around Germany and arrested 25 people accused of plotting a coup to topple the German state and establish a new monarchy. The central figure in the coup is Heinrich XIII, the 71-year-old scion of an aristocratic family, but, more concerning, the arrested ringleaders include members of the German security service (BBC).
Emily Stewart at Vox lays out the current state of the Sam Bankman-Fried FTX saga and starts to explore what I think are the more substantial concerns surrounding the lurid saga, namely that while the scale of the crimes in this case are spectacular, but the crimes themselves are quite ubiquitous and the media and financial apparatuses in the modern US provide superficial cover for people like SBF to profit.
From a few weeks ago, BBC has a story about the kenari nut which could have a future as a dairy substitute and developing commercial possibilities might stem deforestation in Indonesia.
Album of the week: Kitchen Dwellers, “Wise River”
Now reading: Brandon Sanderson, The Lost Metal; Michael J. Decker, The Sasanian Empire at War
The first day after the end of classes is always a little bit surreal. After however many weeks of steady churn driven forward by the structure of regularly-scheduled classes, all of that drops away. At the same time, that day can’t kick off a period of rest and planning for the next semester in full. Rather, it is a deceptive calm. This day inaugurates a period of limbo where both I and my students have a significant amount of work to do without the same structure for our time. I am looking forward to powering down for a few days soon, by which I mean spending more time reading and writing some of the posts I talked about last week, but first I need to grade all the papers.
This week saw discussion of ChatGPT-3, an AI that can produce text-based on answers. Earlier this year, Mike Sharples produced a “graduate level” essay using this algorithm (though it only has one citation, to a non-existent article) as part of a call to rethink assessment, which prompted Stephen Marche to declare in the Atlantic that this technology threatens to be yet another example of humanists committing soft suicide, though the evidence he offers for this speak more to social pressures and costs of educations than to the interest of students, at least in my experience. This might be the topic for a longer post, but I am closer to Daniel Lametti in Slate on the issue: Sharples’ essay isn’t satisfactory for a graduate course or even Marche’s assessment of it as a B+ undergrad paper. Without factoring in the mistaken citation it might warrant a B-, in some class. With that factored in, it should be an F. Lametti argues that this could be a tool, but it won’t kill the college essay. John Warner used this to repeat his call for overhauling assessment without accepting Sharples’ claim that the AI had produced graduate level work. By contrast, the tool seems to do a pretty good job of summarizing nonfiction text, which does have value so long as it is a starting point for engagement rather than the end.
Mark Joseph Stern explains in Slate how the Supreme Court is currently hearing arguments on a non-case wherein a website designer wants to discriminate against LGBTQ couples who come to purchase a website template that she has never even designed. The gambit by the plaintiff is that this sort of case will be easier to side with their arguments since there is no customer trying to buy the product. Elie Mystal in The Nationparticularly takes aim at the nonsense argument about what counts as speech. Since the conservative justices attempted to make the race analogy, Mystal, a black man, goes there, saying of the difference between speech and accommodations: “To put it plainly, a diner owner can absolutely tell me “I don’t like n******” when serving me lunch, but he still has to serve me lunch. He doesn’t have a free-speech objection to providing me a service that I am willing to pay for, no matter how deeply he hates me. He can be a jerk about it. He can name his business “Raisins In Potato Salad”; he can dedicate all of the sandwiches on his menu to Confederate generals and serve me on a plate emblazoned with a swastika. But he has to serve me.”
Of course, at least four justices are fully prepared to endorse the historically-nonsensical and extremely dangerous Independent State Legislature Theory in Moore v. Harper, as Mark Joseph Stern explains (Slate, again).
Missouri, like many other states, is taking steps to censor material that goes into public libraries. Aisha Sultan, an editor at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, points out the sad irony that right-wing politicians are bypassing serious concerns about misinformation online (you know, where children and every one else get most of their information), to brand libraries “as the biggest informational threat to children.”
A certain former president of the United States called for terminating the constitution of the United States just as, he says, the founders would have wanted. Several Republican lawmakers have criticized the language, but Republican leadership declined to comment (Washington Post). Just another day in the Republic.
Brevard County in Florida has a new superintendent of schools, and a new sheriff in town. This week he gave a press conference in front of the county jail in which he explained that “They know they’re not going to be given after-school detention, they’re not going to be suspended, they’re not going to be expelled, or like in the old days, they’re not going to have the cheeks of their a– torn off for not doing right in class.” This appears to be a reaction to allegations of severe disciplinary problems in the district that is causing teachers to quit. No mention of any of the other reasons a Florida schoolteacher might want to quit their job or the social issues in the community that are playing out in the schools.
I have been avoiding the World Cup this year in protest of Qatar’s hosting. Now one of the journalists covering the event has died under unclear circumstances (NPR). Grant Wahl was briefly detained for wearing a rainbow shirt and has talked both about death threats he received this year and the illness that came on before his death. I have not seen any evidence of foul play yet, but the circumstances are suspicious.
Age is just a number, but there are multiple ways to calculate it. South Korea’s parliament voted to tally age by birthday starting at zero when you’re born (NPR) rather than starting with one and adding a year each New Year (which would mean someone born one day before the New Year would turn two on their second day of life. I see all of the reasons to fall in line with the rest of the world, but part of me is sad when this sort of cultural idiosyncrasy goes away.
Album of the week: The Chicks, Fly
Currently reading: Peng Shepherd, The Cartographers; Emma Dench, Empire and Political Cultures in the Roman World
The fall semester is rapidly drawing to a close and, despite some effort this semester to change the schedule on which students submit their assignments, I am finding myself staring down an avalanche of grading. Under the best of conditions I am deeply ambivalent about this time of year because it generally does not allow students to do their best work, and, this year, I already feel worn down from a semester that has been nothing but an endless cycle of grading.
There will be time for a semester debrief once it has ended. Not for the first time I have been reflecting this week on how much time it takes to grade the way I think grading ought to be done. There are, of course, grading systems that take little or no time on the part of the professor, but these are generally a concession to volume in large classes for what I am teaching rather than an ideal substitute for more labor intensive pedagogies. However, this also means that I have had less time to write, to say nothing to the knock-on effects of this grading like the reading and types of writing I do to find my writing voice again after reading student writing and the time it takes to switch modes. Some days recently I just haven’t had the brain space to make that transition and only one of these activities pays my bills.
This also means that I have a backlog of things I want to write about. Setting aside my academic writing, to which this also applies, I started writing a post about phantom time conspiracies this week, have been compiling my thoughts about both Andor and Rings of Power, and intend to write about at least three books I finished this semester and the one I am currently reading. Then there is a recap of #AcWriMo and a semester reflection. By a quick count, that is nine posts without including weekly varia, my annual end of year series, or any topics that might move me to write before the end of the year. Now, I wouldn’t expect to publish all of these posts before the end of the year even without the avalanche of grading, but simply having these things on the docket means that I feel the lack of time all the more acutely.
This week’s varia:
In September James Sweet, the president of AHA, published “Is History History?,” in the professional organization’s Perspectives magazine. The essay prompted an enormous amount of push-back online, leading David Frum to write favorably about Sweet’s position in The Atlantic. This week, Jonathan Wilson published a sensitive rebuttal to both in Clio and the Contemporary.
The Bryn Mawr Classical Review is the preeminent book review outfit for Classics, both for good and for ill. It is open-access and prestigious, but the place it holds in these systems also leads to controversy over its impact, what styles it allows (and who gets to write in what register), and editorial choices. I have volunteered to review books a half dozen or so times over the years and been turned down every time, but I nevertheless found of interest Clifford Ando’s reflection on process.
Related, Paul Bowers writes in “Notes from a School Board Takeover” about how national rhetoric plays out in local communities when conservatives seize control of a school board and warp policy to reflect their political agenda. One of his most important observations: the people enacting these policies are immune to shame and don’t care about lost teachers. This is about the exercise of power.
San Francisco’s board of supervisors gave permission for police to arm potentially-lethal robots. Police assure the public that they have no plans to put guns on the robots, just explosives, as though that is much better.
College football is a deeply corrupt sport. All aspects of this corruption is currently on display at Auburn University, which just hired Hugh Freeze as its head coach. Freeze was fired from his job at Mississippi amid scandal and hasn’t done much better at Liberty. He also has a history of harassing critics and worse, while hiding behind bible verses, as Jason Kirk details in his latest newsletter. The latest Split Zone Duo podcast (with host Steven Godfrey who created the Foul Play docuseries about Hugh Freeze at Ole Miss) had, I thought, a compelling discussion of how sports media is allowing Auburn to rehabilitate Freeze’s image.
Album of the Week: Trampled by Turtles, “Alpenglow”
Currently Reading: Sequoia Nagamatsu, How High We Go in the Dark; Emma Dench, Empire and Political Cultures in the Roman World
The Game kicks off in Columbus in about an hour. For those who don’t follow college football, The Game is the annual showdown between the University of Michigan Wolverines and the Ohio State Buckeyes. Michigan leads the all-time series 59-51-6, but the rivalry has been lopsided in the other direction for the better part of two decades. Going into The Game last year, Ohio State had only lost twice since 2001 when Jim Tressel took over as coach. Ohio State was rarely ranked outside of the top ten in the sport when the teams met during that period. Michigan put up a fight in a lot of years, but, outside of an excellent Michigan team in 2003 and an anomalous Ohio State year in 2011 between the end of Tressel and the start of Urban Meyer’s tenure, Michigan could not seem to win and often lost in heartbreaking fashion. Last year I left the TV off and played Civilization VI until a friend texted me in the fourth quarter telling me that I probably needed to tune in.
Sports fandom, and sports hatred in particular, are strange, tribal phenomena. I have hated many teams in my life, sometimes as specific iterations of a team and sometimes simply for the laundry. Sometimes I hate how a team or player plays their sport. Other times it is because my team can’t seem to ever win. However, I increasingly find myself without the emotional energy for hatred. I still don’t like teams and root for the teams that I’m a fan of, but full-on hatred both takes more energy and is best curated in groups. When it comes to a game like this one, where my fandom collides with the deep, simmering dislike of the other team, though, all bets are off.
I went back and forth a half dozen times this week on whether to tape The Game or watch it live this year. Ohio State is ranked #2 in college football, while Michigan is #3. Both teams are undefeated and the winner will likely end up with a bid to the college football playoff while the loser will “only” play in the Rose Bowl. The lure of live sports is proving too strong to resist, so I’ll be tuning in while also preparing myself for what I think will be a likely Michigan defeat. Go Blue.
This week’s varia:
A new study claims to have authenticated a coin found in 1713 long considered a possible forgery because it names an otherwise unknown Emperor Sponsian (the research is available on PlosOne). The researchers suggest it dates to c.260 CE when Dacia might have been cut off from the rest of the Roman Empire and thus minted coins under the name of a local military commander. There are, of course, skeptics. Numismatists, specialists in ancient coins, are suggesting that this study fails to account for numerous tenets of the discipline in their haste to scientifically authenticate the coin. To my mind, this study is a useful reminder about the fragmentary nature of evidence from the ancient world.
Graham Hancock’s show Ancient Apocalypse on Netflix is a “documentary” that offers “evidence” of a an advanced ice-age civilization was wiped out by a flood sometime in the dim past. This is pseudoarchaeology with racist bones (it denies the achievements of indigenous communities), so, of course, it is one of the most popular shows on Netflix. The Guardian calls it “the most dangerous show on Netflix,” while Bill Caraher has a more nuanced piece about the impossibility of debunk ing this sort of conspiracy theory and some suggesting for how to productively counteract their influence.
Corey Booker is introducing the Industrial Agriculture Accountability Act (Vox), which proposes to reform how the meat industry handles disaster. The bill includes requiring the industry to pay annual fees that would work as insurance in cases of disaster, mandating disaster preparedness plans, and putting companies on the hook for costs like cleaning up the after disasters and paying workers severance afterward. It also would ban the most inhumane culling methods and close some loopholes in American slaughter rules. I have disagreed with a number of Booker’s positions over the past few years, but his consistency in attempting to change one of the American industries most in need of reform is admirable.
Investigators are leveling accusations that some Russian military commanders encouraged their soldiers to commit sexual violence in Ukraine (Reuters). This investigation is part of the broader inquiry into Russian war crimes and, while it is too early to say how widespread the practice was, the implication that this violence was in some instances coordinated makes it all the more harrowing.
In the Washington Post’s “Made by History” column, Lauren Lassabe Shepherd explores how Ron DeSantis is the latest in a lineage of conservative political actors to make schools their chosen battleground to instill their vision of “America.” The hook here is that Florida recently became the fifth state to make students recognize a federal holiday that I missed when President Trump established it in 2017: Victims of Communism Memorial Day. Lassabe Shepherd is the author of a forthcoming book, Resistance from the Right: Conservatives and the Campus Wars.
In the realm of the silly, the New York Times Pitchbot is consistently the best satirist on Twitter: “This morning while we were listening to The Daily, my four year-old turned to me gravely and asked “Daddy, why are there no pictures of Naomi Biden’s wedding in the Times?” When I told him “because Vogue got an exclusive”, he started crying.”
Album of the week: Gin Blossoms, New Miserable Experience (Deluxe Edition).
Currently reading: Susanna Carlsson, Hellenistic Democracies; Becky Chambers, A Psalm for the Wild-Built.