Generous Thinking

A few years ago I had a student who asked me to write a letter of recommendation for graduate school. She was a shoe-in. Two of the people writing letters for her were the professors she intended to work with, so I was just there to fulfill the requirement. She had taken several classes with me and done well, so I was flattered to be asked and happy to help. When orientation rolled around the next summer, my former student sent me an email to again thank me for the letter I wrote and expressed how nervous she was about the coming semester. I thanked her and gave her my best pieces of advice about graduate school.

It will seem, I said, like your peers know everything. They strut around like peacocks, name dropping scholars and theories and schools of scholarship. But this doesn’t mean that they are smarter or more prepared for graduate school than you are. Maybe they have a deep background in that topic. Maybe they restrict their comments to their particular field of research. Maybe they know just enough to name drop Foucault trusting that you won’t know enough to challenge them.

When I came to graduate school, I was the second-youngest person in my cohort. Where many of my peers had already earned MA degrees or spent years teaching, I had spent my year after graduation managing a Quiznos restaurant and desperately trying to keep my Greek fresh. I was also the only person in my cohort who studied ancient history in a program that was overwhelmingly made up of American historians. This meant that in most conversations I was on their turf.

The best thing you can do, I told my former student, is to resist the temptation to treat graduate school as a competition. Instead, approach the books you read, the classes you take, and the conversations you have with an open mind. Grad school seminars train students to strip books down to their foundations in order to critique the scholarship on everything from the framing to the evidence. These are important skills for a scholar to have, of course, but a more important skill is to understand what the author is doing. Anyone who goes to graduate school can recall an example where a person holding forth on the myriad flaws of a particular book was doing so based on a relatively minor point at best or without having read the whole book at worst.

I have seen both. At least twice I tried to discredit a book based on minor errors—the small issues might be indicative of larger problems, but it was a mistake to not first start with the bigger picture. Another time I watched as someone went on at length about how a book was invalid because it didn’t cover a particular topic…that the author covered in the section of the book that she had not read. Either way, not a good look.

Advice like what I gave to my former student lies at the heart of Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s Generous Thinking. Her core thesis is that the culture of critique and obsession with prestige hierarchies has created an environment where knowledge production is treated like a competition and where tearing down others is as valuable as producing anything. The very structures of the American university system (as distinct from, for instance, community colleges) encourages this behavior:

The entire academic enterprise serves to cultivate individualism, in fact. Beginning with college applications, extending through graduate school admissions, fellowship applications, the job market, publication submissions, and, seemingly, finally tenure and promotion review, those of us on campus are subject to selection. These processes present themselves as meritocratic…in actual practice, however, those metrics are never neutral, and what we are measured against is far more often than not one another—sometimes literally.

The pressures that Fitzpatrick identifies are all exacerbated in the Age of Austerity currently because austerity means even more competition for fewer resources. However, as Fitzpatrick rightly points out, falling back on prestige hierarchies and competition is a self-defeating proposal that undermines the very project we are ostensibly setting out to pursue.

Her solution is to double down on “generosity as an enduring habit of mind, a conversational practice” (56). This means a host of things for Fitzpatrick, from developing a vocabulary of shared values to working in public to realigning the university toward community and public service, to simply learning how to listen.

In principle, I agree with everything Fitzpatrick wrote in Generous Thinking and seek to embody most of the practices.

In practice, I found Generous Thinking frustrating. The subtitle of this book promises “A Radical Approach to Saving the University.” Certainly there is a radicalism in the form of the books optimism and some of the proposals to change university policies away from those that put scholars in competition with one another, but there were times where I also found it to be missing the forest for the trees—by her own admission. Fitzpatrick admits in the preface that this is a book informed by her position at a large land-grant institution. This means a secondary focus on institutions like community colleges, but I found the blindspots to be greater than she admits.

In particular, I found framing a book as a way to save the university but then giving almost no thought to how this would affect contingent faculty shocking. That is, I endorse everything she wrote as a matter of praxis, but I wanted more acknowledgement that many people are not in a position to carry out these proposals. There is absolutely something here that contingent faculty can learn from, but I couldn’t help but feel that in her effort to work toward an academic community built on generosity Fitzpatrick had managed to largely disregard the second-class academic citizen. It isn’t that she us unaware of these problems—indeed, she mentions the jobs crisis on at least one occasion (18) — but other than (rightly, in my opinion) showing how public engagement can help catalyze stakeholders into investing in institutions, I found little meaningful consideration of either how generous thinking would change the underlying structural realities or how this would play out with overworked and underpaid contingent faculty who often already teach more classes than their full-time colleagues while also hunting for their next gig. I hope Fitzpatrick’s suggestions would make a difference and the core ideas absolutely ought to be embraced, but I nevertheless came away with the impression that this was not so much generous, as wishful thinking.

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I have a rather lot going on right now. Not only have I hit the point in the semester where I have a never-ending stream of assignments to grade, but I am also working on finishing the manuscript for my first book and keeping up with a few other research and editing projects. This means I am back to often choosing whether to spend my spare time reading or writing about the books I read. For the most part, reading wins out, though I do intend still to write about what I’ve read if at a delay (I finished Generous Thinking almost a month ago). I still intend to write about Yoon Ha Lee’s The Machineries of Empire series and have since finished Maaza Mengiste’s brilliant The Shadow King and Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi, both of which made it onto my soon-to-be-published 2021 list of favorite novels, as well as making my way through Neil Gaimon’s The Sandman, which I will likely write about once I have finished the series. I am now reading Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste, which is an incisive look at the issue of race in America by threading together the US, India, and Nazi Germany.

Eat a Peach

David Chang’s Eat a Peach cover

David Chang is probably best known for his culinary empire Momofuku, which Wikipedia tells me includes at this point dozens of restaurants. I have only eaten at one, the dessert-themed Milk Bar in Washington DC. In Eat a Peach Chang readily admits that everything else that he does—this memoir, his cookbook, Ugly Delicious, and a dozen other endeavors—are designed to put butts in those seats. At least under normal circumstances since, like so many food establishments, Momofuku’s business has been entirely upended by COVID-19.

Eat a Peach, written with Gabe Ulla, is thus an advertisement for Momofuku that puts Chang and his theories of deliciousness front and center. Obviously, food is everywhere—Chang is a chef and his public persona on shows like Ugly Delicious filters the world through food-colored glasses as an heir to the late Tony Bourdain.

But what particularly stood out to me about this memoir is how it is a study in binaries.

Eat a Peach is divided into two parts. Its first half is a roughly linear narrative of his upbringing in a Korean-American household, his successes with golf that helped get him into Georgetown Prep and subsequent flameout of the sport, and his brief period working in finance, before finally getting to his entry into the restaurant industry. Chang readily admits that he was not good at being a chef, which makes his decision to found Momofuku in 2004 and his chance partnership with Quino Baca—the first and only employee at the Noodle Bar when it opened—even more of a radical gamble.

Chang writes about Momofuku like it is a revolutionary movement. There was a vision behind the original Noodle Bar, yes, but there was also a willingness to overhaul the entire menu when things weren’t working. The employees worked in cadres that participated in a company-wide email list with one objective: how to make their product more delicious. As the company grew and expanded, they formed new cells that oversaw Momofuku Ssām Bar and the Milk Bar.

Woven through this narrative is reflection on mental illness and depression (Chang is bipolar) that manifested in self-destructive tendencies such as drug use and overwork.

These themes come more thoroughly to the fore in the second half of Eat a Peach where Chang tells stories from a time after Momofuku and his public persona had become fixtures of the food world. Food and the restaurants still feature, but in more complicated ways.

For instance, in part one, Chang wraps the reader up in the energy and chaos of starting a restaurants—fights with critics and inspectors, problems of staffing, and the thrill of designing the most delicious menu—that captures difficulties, but also sees the enterprise with rose-colored glasses.

By contrast, Chang takes an introspective turn in part two. His ideals remain the same, but now he interrogates where his instinctive “fuck-you” attitude came from, who it is directed toward, and its relationship to his mental health. He talks about his experience with an executive coach who helped him see both how special the thing he created was and how his behavior caused those around him, including customers and staff, to live in fear of his anger. Far from leading a food revolution to bring high-end food to the masses, Chang realized that he was leading a cult. Followers were expected to give up their personal lives and commit their entire beings to the restaurant.

Ultimately, Eat a Peach is a reflection on growth—of the Momofuku empire, yes, but also personal growth in a way that I found particularly satisfying. There were times that Chang’s story resonated a bit too much (my anxiety manifests in a tendency toward overwork as well), but what elevates this memoir for me was how Chang works to de-center himself. He talks lovingly about his wife Grace, his son, and how they learned of her pregnancy the day after his close friend Tony Bourdain died. He lavishly distributes praise for Momofuku’s success. He talks endlessly about his long-standing relationship with his therapist. But more than all of that, I appreciated how Chang talks openly about his mistakes and blindspots, whether in cavalierly dismissing the chefs of California or contributing to a kitchen culture that was hostile to women, and that he acknowledges that talk only goes so far. Proof comes in the form of actions, and it is no coincidence that the cover art is meant to evoke Camus’ Myth of Sisyphus.

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I’m still making my way through a backlog of books I want to write about, including N.K. Jemisin’s The City We Became, Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s Generous Thinking, and Yoon Ha Lee’s Machineries of Empire trilogy. I am now reading Maaza Mengiste’s The Shadow King.

Planet Taco

In the fall of 2016, a co-founder of Latinos for Trump went on MSNBC and warned:

My culture is a very dominant culture. It is imposing and it’s causing problems. If you don’t do something about it, you’re going to have taco trucks on every corner.”

The comment came in the midst of a contentious election and was meant to conjure images of a flood of immigrants from Latin America that would scare the sorts of people for whom Ron Swanson’s skepticism about ethnic food was no joke:

Ron Swanson: "I don't much go for ethnic food."
Ron Swanson, Parks and Rec 3.2, “Flu Season”

For most of the people I know, this sounded like a promise and we’re still waiting.

Jeffrey Pilcher’s book Planet Taco unfortunately predates this political context. Instead, it tackles a different, but no less contentious, issue: what even is Mexican food?

Pilcher’s argument, at its most basic, is that authentic Mexican food doesn’t exist. Or rather, that any claim to authenticity is fundamentally a political statement.

The book opens with an introduction, “A Tale of Two Tacos.” The one of those is a Mexican street taco made fresh on the spot off the beaten path in a small Sonoran city, served with beer and with some lawn chairs as a dining room. The second is a Taco Bell taco, served off a production line into pastel-colored dining facilities at about the same price point.

To ask which of these two is more authentic, Pilcher argues, is to miss the point. As much as authenticity is meant to appeal to a particular sort of identity, it also creates that identity and, ultimately, serves as a marketing buzzword. Pilcher’s core contention, therefore, is that “Mexican food” is actually a range of regional cuisines in and around the modern nation-state of Mexico. These regional dishes might have overlapping flavor profiles and some common ingredients, but they are the product of distinct historical, environmental and technological processes (including immigration) that gave rise to distinct traditions that are each as authentic as the next.

This is the sort of history that I eat up (pun intended). Pilcher punctuates each chapter with contemporary recipe cards for the recipes that he’s talking about, and covering topics as diverse as nixtamalization, the process designed to counteract the nutritional deficits of maize, to the invention of the hardshell taco and the spread of Mexican restaurants in the United States and around the world.

I will admit that I am geared to be sympathetic to Pilcher’s core arguments. While I cannot speak necessarily to the specific details of how these regional cuisines came into existence, the appreciation of the regionality of individual cuisines and lending to each of those an authenticity of their own was a welcome pushback against the impulse that identifies and canonizes a single original, using that to discredit all other comers. As Pilcher rightly points out, this impulse becomes particularly toxic when it becomes bound up with a particular national project that normalizes the group in power and is used to further marginalize everyone who dose not conform.

Naturally, things become even more complex in a country like the United States that both has “-mex” traditions and where there is a long history of people from one tradition cooking and owning restaurants that purport to serve cuisines that are not their own.

All of this to say, I really liked Planet Taco. It is an academic history book so its tone might be a little esoteric for some readers, but it also gave me a lot of food for thought, as well as a new appreciation for one of my favorite restaurants I’ve eaten at in the past couple of years.

Two summers ago my partner and I had just finished an exceedingly hot day at the Kansas City Zoo and just wanted some food before crashing into our air-conditioned hotel room and be ready for a flight the next morning. We settled on going to Ixtapa, a restaurant in a strip mall on the north side of the city (it now has a second location in Overland Park). We drove around the parking lot a couple of times to get a spot and then had to wait as they finished up an early dinner rush, but soon enough were seated and handed menus. We had barely started to look when a man—the owner, it turned out—came over to ask us if we knew what we wanted.

Guacamole, we said, as an appetizer while we looked at the menu.

I don’t know what he saw in us or what was going on in the kitchen, but he immediately responded, “No, no, no. You don’t want guacamole.”

We stole a glance at each other, but he continued “our guacamole is great, but you can get guacamole anywhere in this country. I’ll serve you.” He grabbed the menus, making some more jokes about generic Mexican food and asking what we wanted to drink.

At this point I stopped him with some dietary restrictions and preferences, which he received with perfect calm and began bringing us food. First he brought quesadillas de flor de calabaza (squash blossom quesadillas), followed by mains of enchiladas nopales (cactus) and a pork special with a raspberry chipotle sauce.

After a while we got to chatting with him and it turned out that this was his restaurant and he was immensely proud of the recipe that he put on the menu. We had managed to avoid some of his favorite dishes, I think, because I’m not wild about seafood, which was something of his speciality, or at least composes the largest single section of the menu. Sure, there the menu has basic Mexican fare, including cheese nachos, but such is the restaurant business. What made Ixtapa special were all of the dishes you can’t find at every taco joint and the clear pride he had in the cuisine of his specific region.

I love generic tacos, too, and have fond memories of finding a fabulous hole in the wall in south Houston for exactly that purpose, and one of my favorite spots in Columbia, Missouri is a Korean taco fusion joint, but each of these examples speaks exactly to the point that Pilcher makes in Planet Taco. Food is an expression of culture that is intimately and inextricably intertwined with the people who are making and consuming it. Rather than indulging in the authenticity wars that use it as a cudgel, let’s celebrate the wide range of possibilities and indulge in the deliciousness of them all.

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Book reviews had been a staple of my content here for a few years because it made for an easy writing prompt and gave me a chance to collect my thoughts on each book. One of the consequences of trying to teach during a pandemic is that I entirely got away from writing those reviews such that I wrote about fewer than a third of the books I read between September and the end of the year and none of the books I have plowed through so far in 2021. I doubt that I will get back to where I write about every book I read—I have too much other writing I need to do, not to mention teaching, and only have so much brain power these days—but in fits and starts and modified ways, I intend to get back to writing about books.

On my list to write about in the near future include: N.K. Jemisin’s The City We Became; Yoon Ha Lee’s series The Machineries of Empire, and John Le Carré’s Absolute Friends, and David Chang’s memoir, Eat a Peach. I am currently reading Kathleen Fitzgerald’s Generous Thinking.

To Make Men Free

2020 is a curious time to be thinking about the history of the Republican Party. For the past few years this has been the party of Donald Trump, with all of the baggage that comes with that label. This year, the party’s machinations have gone to ever greater lengths to overturn election results and line the pockets of the wealthy few.

This was not always the case.

In To Make Men Free, Heather Cox Richardson, argues that the soul of the Republican Party has swung on a pendulum between the two extremes.

One vertex was the ideal of economic opportunity that lay behind the formation of the Republican Party. This was the party of Lincoln, in her telling, which opposed the institution of slavery because it had created an oligarchy. The men who owned the most slaves also usually owned the most land, squeezing out people like Abraham Lincoln’s grandfather, and they pulled on the levers of power to protect their position in society. Thus opposing slavery was synonymous with ensuring economic opportunity for all people. Moreover, they maintained, it was the place of government to step in and level the playing field.

The other vertex also existed almost from the start, with Republican supporters becoming very wealthy from government contracts during the Civil War. For those who espoused this position, economic opportunity was of secondary importance to the constitutional protections of property. They might not have endorsed slavery—and certainly they would be the first to point out that Democrats were the party of traitors—but neither would they support handouts to the “mudsills” of society since that way lay socialism.

Richardson takes readers into the smokey back rooms where the deals were made to trace the oscillation between these two extremes. Lincoln and the so-called “radical” Republicans gave way to business-oriented Republicans in the late 1870s, 1880s, and 1890s. Teddy Roosevelt briefly wrenched control of the party again with a platform that demanded government regulation of big business, only to see those gains given back by the Republican administrations of the 1920s where Coolidge maintained that “the chief business of the American people is business.” Many Republicans might have opposed the New Deal, but it also functionally established a new political norm that informed the policies of Dwight Eisenhower in the 1950s that expanded educational opportunity, the interstate highway system, and a high marginal tax rate. However, it was also the 1950s that saw the birth of so-called “Movement Conservatism”: hard-line, activist conservatism of William F. Buckley and Barry Goldwater that captured the Republican party in the 1970s and has not let go.

Before I became a historian, I thought I might want to work in politics. One of my favorite books a professor assigned in college was Stephen Skowronek’s The Politics Presidents Make, which looked at how presidents were able to realign political coalitions in ways that shaped the political trajectory of the United States. Broadly speaking, To Make Men Free offers a comparable look at just the Republican Party. I am sure that there are people who would quibble with some of the specific characterizations of figures in this book, but as an evaluation of the larger trends and currents, this book rang true and had receipts to show each of the changes.

Richardson neatly (sometimes almost too neatly) sketches how the outward policies of the Republican Party were the result of long-standing intra-party fights. This was a compelling read, filled with fascinating anecdotes like how early Republican legislators were issuing dire warning about socialism and moments like how “In 1938, in a speech the New York Times reprinted, Luccock warned that when fascism came to America it would be called ‘Americanism'” (207).

But there were two particular facets of this book that stood out to me reading it in the age of Trump. The first was how deeply many current Republican talking points have a deep history in the party’s consciousness. When Republican legislators railed that it was impossible for some Democrat to have won an election in the late 1800s on the grounds that their party was composed of illegitimate traitors who were also determined to bring socialist values to America, one could almost hear the same words coming out of any number of present-day Republican commentators. That position was more understandable coming from a Republican who had fought in the Civil War, but it was also a bitter echo given the current political climate.

The second facet was Richardson’s treatment of Movement conservatism, of which she declares: “Buckley might have called his ideas conservative, but they were actually the very radicalism true conservatives opposed” (249). Ultimately, this is the Republican party we have today, and unyielding and uncompromising political ideology that ironically, as Richardson points out, built its membership through small group meetings rather like the Communists they despised. Much like the rest of the book, Richardson doesn’t linger, but offers a sweeping overview of Movement Conservatism summarizing it as:

In the years after Reagan, Movement Conservatives lashed the Republican Party to an ideology that was based on image rather than reality … [They] claimed to be trying to cut government down to an acceptable size. But in truth they were destroying the New Deal government, which they saw as socialism, and replacing it with an even bigger government that served the ideals of Movement Conservatism: promoting big business, religion, and the military.

Naturally, this last section would be the hardest part of the book to write since it takes the reader roughly through the present. Richardson ends To Make Men Free with a conclusion that aptly identifies Barack Obama as the embodiment of the values of Lincoln’s Republican party and a figure so anathema to Movement Conservatives who latched onto the rhetoric of the antebellum Democratic political James Henry Hammond that they “could no longer engage with the reality of actual governance” (341). To Make Men Free came out in a time before the presidency of Donald Trump, but I suspect that the intervening years would not change this specific conclusion. What it might change are the two pages after that where Richardson speculates that the changing demographics and distance from the Cold War might allow for leaders in the Republican Party to “stay committed to the ideals of its founders.” And yet, after the past four years of further polarization it is hard to imagine who it is in the Republican Party who is actually willing—let alone able—to make that push.

Answers in the Form of Questions

We have had routine in this house. Jeopardy! airs at 4 PM, so I record the episodes. Whenever we get around to having dinner, we turn on that recording and lose ourselves in half an hour of answers and questions. Sometimes we watch other shows, too, but if there is an available Jeopardy episode, we watch that first and loosely compete with each other. My partner is better at it than I am, in part because she reads the questions while I tend to just let Alex read them to me, but there are certain categories where her reaction is often to just turn and look at me. We judge the contestants—wager too little on a daily double and you’re a coward, but the greater sin is being slow to pick a question, which will lead them not to clear the board—and root for who we want to see tomorrow. Occasionally, I’ll throw a fit about the phrasing of a question.

All of this is to say that while I don’t aspire to being on Jeopardy!, I am among the show’s legion of fans and was greatly saddened at the news of Trebek’s death earlier this year. Claire McNear’s recent book Answers in the Form of Questions was therefore a welcome read.

The best synopsis of Answers in the Form of Questions appears in Ken Jennings’ forward:

Jeopardy! is a magic trick.

In this book, you’re about to see how the trick is done.”

McNear, a staff-writer at The Ringer where Jeopardy! was one of her beats, takes the reader on a journey through past and present of the show. This means, simultaneously, she explores Jeopardy!‘s iterations and development and the mechanics for host and contestants in its current edition.

Jeopardy!‘s first version with host Art Fleming debuted in the aftermath of the game show scandals of the 1950s where the studios rigged the outcome of the matches in order to drum up viewer interest. The most famous, as dramatized in the 1994 film Quiz Show, involved Charles Van Doren effectively receiving the answers in advance of the matches and ended with the FBI investigating the industry. Eventually, congress passed a law that made it illegal to fix a contest of intellectual knowledge. Jeopardy!‘s unique—or even eccentric—style was thus a deliberate rebuttal to these actions: if they simply gave the answers to all contestants and asked them to come up with the question, then they couldn’t be accused of giving the question to any one person.

However, Answers in the Form of Questions largely focuses on the second iteration of the show hosted by Alex Trebek, which, as Jennings put it, is a magic trick. And McNear does aptly show how the trick is done, from the mechanics of the podiums to put everyone on roughly the same elevation (as much for smooth camera operation as for visual symmetry) to noting how the quiz show is done live but much of the fanfare of the show as seen on TV are recorded separately (announcer Johnny Gilbert is 96, after all). Trebek comes off pretty well, even as a rather distant figure for most contestants, as McNear writes about how he used to take the contestant quiz at least once a year and works hard to master the clues—even when the writers delivered him a category called “When the Aztecs Spoke Welsh”…on April Fool’s Day.

Perhaps the most interesting part of this book, though, is how much of it does not take place on a soundstage. For as much time as McNear spend talking about what the studio does behind the scenes, she also explores what it is like behind the scenes for contestants, following some from their hotel to the studio and then from the studio to a Los Angeles-area pub trivia frequented by Jeopardy! alumni. This means both looking at how contestants prepare for their 23-minutes of fame and (usually) limited-payout and interviewing former contestants of both the regular Jeopardy! and celebrity specials.

This approach also allows McNear to pull back and survey the wider cultural impact of Jeopardy!. She obviously discusses the various cameos like SNL’s Celebrity Jeopardy! and Black Jeopardy! skits, but also bring in the original screenplay for The Bucketlist. In that movie, directed by Rob Reiner, Morgan Freeman’s character was supposed to die in an appearance on Jeopardy!, and this connection allows McNear to transition to an adorable anecdote about how the late Carl Reiner would get together every weeknight to eat dinner and watch Jeopardy! together—even transitioning to watching together by phone after the Coronavirus disrupted their routine.

I greatly enjoyed Answers in the Form of Questions even though it is synoptic rather than comprehensive in its look at Jeopardy! and its impact. There is not, for instance, any attempt to grapple with David Foster Wallace’s Little Expressionless Animals (originally in the Paris Review in 1988, republished in The Girl With Curious Hair). This deeply weird short story is about a young woman named Julie Smith for whom the producers bend the then-extant 5-game limit for contestants because she’s popular, only to see her go on a multi-year run so dominant that it begins to tank the show’s popularity. Answers in the Form of Questions is such a paean to the magic of Jeopardy! that I was really curious how McNear would tackle the story, which warps that magic in ways that swing wildly from funny (“Alex Trebek goes around the Jeopardy! studio wearing a button that says PAT SAJAK LOOKS LIKE A BADGER.”) to bizarre (“‘My favorite word,’ says Alex Trebek, ‘is moist. It is my favorite word, especially when used in combination with my second-favorite word, which is loincloth.'”). I don’t meant this as a criticism of McNear—LEA is a strange story even by Wallace’s standards and it does not fit with the tone of Answers in the Form of Questions—but rather to point out that Jeopardy!‘s reach goes even further than what she writes about here.

Alex Trebek suffered from and eventually succumbed to pancreatic cancer, passing away earlier this year. He hosted Jeopardy! effectively to the end, which has given us a season filled with moving tributes, such as on the November 5 episode when champion Burt Thakur told Alex that he learned to speak English sitting on his grandfather’s lap watching Jeopardy!. The next permanent host of the show is as-yet unknown (my dream candidate is LeVar Burton, but could also see going with someone with sports play-by-play experience), but I can think of no better tribute to Alex Trebek than this look at a deeply niche game show that he helped grow into an iconic cultural phenomenon. I have been watching this season differently since reading Answers in the Form of Questions, particularly in thinking about the changes they made in order to create the show safely during a pandemic, and just hope that whoever follows in Alex’s enormous shadow can retain Jeopardy‘s charm.

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I have fallen off from writing about books recently and hope to change this a bit now that the semester is over. I am currently reading Octavia Butler’s The Pararable of the Sower, which is an enthralling near-future dystopian novel set in United States that is all-but collapsed because of climate change.

Say Nothing

In all of the issues around Brexit, one of the most pressing was the border between the Republic of Ireland and the UK country of Northern Ireland. With the UK and Ireland both in the European Union the border between the two countries was soft, but Brexit threatened to harden the border and thereby increase tensions. I am by no means an expert on these issues and am vastly oversimplifying them, but while the Good Friday Agreement largely ended the violence of the Troubles, it is hardly a forgotten issue. It was with this background that I brought into Patrick Radden Keefe’s Say Nothing, which the subtitle describes as A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland.

Say Nothing, which draws its title from imperative motto of Provisional IRA operatives, builds its narrative around perhaps the most famous case of a “disappeared” person in Belfast. One night in December 1972, the 38 year old Jean McConville, widowed mother of ten, was abducted from her home in the low-income housing unit of Divis Flats allegedly for having passed information to the British soldiers. She was never seen alive again.

Over the years, the McConville case garnered international attention as one of the most prominent unsolved murders from this period, but hers was just one of some 17 disappeared persons whose abductions were blamed on units within the Provisional IRA, a Republican militia group.

Radden Keefe spends the first parts of Say Nothing pulling back from the disappearances in order to explore the operations of the “Provos,” introducing readers to operatives such as Dolours and Marian Price, two radical sisters in a group called the Unknowns, and leadership figures in the organization like Brendan Hughes and Gerry Adam. He asks important questions, such as how did the Provos become radicalized such that the violence accelerated with money and weapons from the US, most notably the Armalite—the same company that makes the AR-15—and how the conflict developed when prominent Provos ended up in prisons staging hunger strikes.

One of the core tensions in this portion of Say Nothing is the fundamental differences of interpretation in how the Provos and the British authorities saw the conflict. For the Provos, this was a war and they used this justification as an excuse for when they killed civilians. The British responded with the tactics and techniques learned in suppressing rebellions in their colonies. This meant draconian incarcerations and largely looking the other way at retributive violence committed by loyalist militias. The result was tragedy.

Where roughly the first half of Say Nothing is a harrowing, propulsive narrative of events, filled with the youthful fire of its protagonists, the second half is slower, messier, and perhaps more significant investigation into the memory of the conflict.

This happens in two ways. First, the protagonists age. Gerry Adams gains a measure of respectability as a mainstream politician, which his former comrades-in-arms saw as a betrayal of everything they fought for. The others emerged prematurely aged, broken by their time behind bars, and often struggling with alcohol and drug dependencies. They aren’t remorseful, though some expressed regrets about specific actions, but they appear much more subdued.

The second development in this part of the book is reportage on The Belfast Project, a secret project hosted by Boston College where ex-paramilitary members allowed themselves to be recorded on tape discussing their activities during the Troubles. In other words, after years of silence, they said something.

These tapes were to be kept in the US and embargoed until after the deaths of the participants in order to prevent prosecution for crimes committed and thereby get the participants to speak openly and thereby create an oral history archive. Despite this intent, the project turned out to be a mess. Once the existence of the tapes became known, the Atlantic Ocean (and the poorly-written confidentiality agreement) proved a flimsy shield against legal action.

Radden Keefe makes it clear from the outset that he is not a historian. In this sense, he has written a compelling book in which nobody comes off well. This is a story with only villains and victims. Gerry Adams appears sociopathic, for instance, and the Price sisters unrepentant. The through-line is the McConville murder and how the body came to light in part because of the Belfast Project, is a perfect entryway for an exploration into not only the Troubles, but also just how shallowly the Troubles were buried.

At the same time, his particular source-base and choice of subject sometimes leads this to being a one-sided story focused on the Provos and their quixotic war against the British. The British authorities necessarily appear as the antagonist, but since many of their records remain sealed, that side of the conflict is largely absent. The other missing character in all of this were the Loyalist paramilitaries who Radden Keefe mentions, but rarely explores.

I also might have liked further discussion of the historical development of the Troubles given that this was clearly not an isolated incident. Nevertheless, Say Nothing is worth reading, both because it is a propulsive story and because it is an object lesson in how memory and rhetoric form an explosive mixture that can lead to tragedy, particularly during times of economic crisis and when the authorities are not interested in the even application of the law.

Oh, wait…

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With the semester in full swing, my reading time has diminished. Right now, I’m slowly making my way through I.J. Singer’s The Brothers Ashkenazi, a generational family history set in the Polish town of Lodz and originally written in Yiddish.

Radical Hope

“Even in the liberal arts, we defend the value of our disciplines largely by talking about how a liberal arts education imparts the types of skills employers value. You’ll be a capitalist cog, but a thoughtful one! So how can we fault students for seeing higher education in largely instrumental, transactional terms if those are the only terms in which they’ve had it presented to them?”

“My teaching career is littered with episodes of maladroit practice that still cause me to cringe years later; sometimes, self-assessment and self-correction suck. But this kind of reflection shouldn’t be simply an exercise in self-flagellation; we should be generous with ourselves in the same ways we are with students when the occasion calls for it.”

Historian and Twitter personality Kevin Gannon’s Radical Hope is a self-professed teaching manifesto built on his decades of teaching experience. Over ten chapters, Gannon lays out a philosophy of teaching that is built on principles of generosity, compassion, and inclusion.

The proposals in Radical Hope are, in short, pedagogical best practices that are also found in other books of the genre. To my mind, they are radical only in how thoroughly they are woven into the praxis envisioned in this book. For instance, Radical Hope points out how the genre of writing that is the college syllabus generates the lament that students don’t read the syllabus by creating a document that more resembles a legal contract than an invitation to the course. This is not a novel observation among books of this sort, even as new COVID language bloats the syllabus further. Similarly, pedagogy books offer tips for how to get students to engage or to combat distraction. Gannon is no different, though, rather than being proscriptive, he endeavors to diagnose the problem from a place of understanding. For instance:

Our task is to create a learning space that can help compensate for the gaps in student confidence, and encourage at least an attempt at the learning activity.

and:

We’ve always had distracted students, whether that distraction involved staring out the window at the quad on a beautiful spring afternoon or sitting in the lecture hall’s back row and updating their fantasy football lineup. (It’s worth noting that the same holds true for most faculty meetings I’ve attended in my career.) The question we should be asking ourselves is what accounts for these distractions? Is it the mere presence of a laptop?

Radical Hope is not a how-to manual, almost to the point of frustration. Each chapter has numerous examples from Gannon’s own career and concludes with a short “into practice” section, but tends not to foreground a deep bibliography of pedagogical research. And yet, Gannon’s language struck home. My most resolutely distracted student, in a class maybe eight or nine years ago, was a young woman with a ball cap pulled down who sat next to the window and stared out into the quad in every class she came to. She may have been hungover (that class met at 8 AM on Friday), but without a phone or laptop in sight she almost never spoke for an entire semester. I was a particularly inexperienced teacher at the time and while that class met in a room with any number of impediments to teaching well, I would do a lot of things differently now.

In many ways, this is the message of Radical Hope: developing a reflective pedagogical praxis. At several points Gannon states that if it seems overwhelming to incorporate every “best” practice in a given semester, pick one to implement. Then pick another next semester. And overhaul your readings the following semester (easier to do when you’re in a stable position, admittedly).

The Platonic ideal of a perfect course, let alone the perfect teacher, does not exist. None of the participants live in a vacuum, so there will be issues. People (certainly students, but also many professors) are in a state of financial insecurity, will show up to class unprepared, were conditioned to respond in particular ways given their educational backgrounds, have personality issues, or are having their meat-sacks acting up on a given day for any number of reasons. Oh, and there is a global pandemic.

This is where I saw the most radical hope. You can’t be a good teacher without, at some level, asserting your “faith in a better future,” as Gannon puts it. Radical Hope largely avoids wading into debates over lectures or whether a classroom ought to be flipped, all of which have merit but often depend as much on the type of class and the style of a given teacher than in any single method.

There is one primary exception to this rule. Gannon at several points suggests that teachers ought to embrace the idea of modeling behavior for students. This means, for instance, encouraging students to use computers to look up answers to questions rather than leaning on what a recent essay called “cop shit” to police technology. Speaking from experience, it can be terrifying to admit before a class of expectant eyes that you don’t know something and it is tempting to try pulling together an answer out of thin air—or somewhere less savory. It can also be extremely disorienting to be called out for saying something wrong, like when I the time last spring when I was talking to students about flood stories and had a student raise her hand to ask me if I meant Noah, because I kept saying Moses. However, if the goal in teaching is to develop minds and to give students skills, then these “inadequacies” are opportunities to model best practices of your discipline. Using them as chances to assert your authority or prove your intellect make the class about the teacher to the detriment of the students.

There is a lot to like about Radical Hope, but isn’t necessarily the place I would start with on a pedagogy reading list. David Gooblar’s The Missing Course I thought offered more practical advice, for instance. But if you’re looking for reinforcement that a pedagogy based on empathy and compassion for everyone involved is possible, this is a perfect read. Given the current state of the world, I would say that this is a timely message. Just don’t get put off by chapter one, “Classrooms of Death;” the title isn’t meant literally.

Dreadnought

One of the most revolutionary ships in the history of seafaring launched on February 10, 1906.

Just over a century earlier, Horatio Nelson had seized control of the seas for the British Empire by defeating the combined fleets of Spain and France. He did this from the deck of the HMS Victory, a first-rate ship of the line carrying 104-cannons launched a full four decades before earlier. In effect, ships of the line were floating artillery batteries that lined up next to each other and pounded each other into submission. Displacing 3,500 tons and launching a full-broadside of over half a ton of metal, the Victory was not the largest battleship at Trafalgar (the Spanish flagship Santísima Trinidad was larger by nearly a third), but was representative of its age. Effective distances were quite close and Nelson and his fellow British commanders attempted to magnify their firepower through superior seamanship by sailing their ships into close contact before opening fire, even at great cost to themselves—the Victory was practically disabled at Trafalgar, and Nelson fatally wounded.

Naval technology developed through the nineteenth century, with the French navy introducing a steam-powered battleship, Le Napoléon (5100 tons), in 1850 and ironclad battleships starting with Gloire (5600 tons) in 1859. Sail slowly fell out of use, and smoothbore cannons gave way to more powerful rifled guns and explosive shells. By the 1890s most major navies used fully-steam powered battleships of roughly 15,000 tons, with mixed-caliber weaponry, including several batteries of four 10- or 12-inch guns as a main armament, designed to combat threats of various sizes and speeds.

Then, in 1906, the Royal Navy launched the HMS Dreadnought, which, in a stroke, made earlier battleships obsolete. Fifteen years later, the Dreadnought, now obsolete, was sold for scrap in part of the downsizing of navies after World War One.

The Dreadnought was revolutionary in several respects. First, it was enormously large, displacing up to 21,000 tons, with the extra weight coming in large part from its armor. Second, it was fast, with a new steam turbine system that pushed water through the engine to generate steam rather than older reciprocating engines. But most notable was that the Dreadnought only carried a single caliber of main battery, ten 12-inch guns of which up to eight could be fired at once. Each shell weighed 850 pounds, giving the Dreadnought a broadside of 6,800 pounds made up of high-explosive shells capable of hitting a target at a range of more than 15 kilometers. Streamlining the caliber of the armament and centralizing the firing systems also served to increase accuracy because the main batteries all fired at the same elevation and range. In short, this was a superior warship worth two or even three battleships of the type launched even a year before.

Within ten years, the Dreadnought itself had been superseded by battleships built in its image, setting up a clash between the German and British fleets of Dreadnought battleships at Jutland in which the HMS Dreadnought did not participate. However, although the launch of the Dreadnought was a crucial development in the history of naval warfare, it was merely one turning point in a larger story of the naval arms race that led up to World War One.

Puck Magazine 1909, “No Limit” arms race, Wikimedia Commons

Robert K. Massie’s Dreadnought sets out to tell this story, but winds up telling a different, albeit connected, one. While the development of the Dreadnought appears in a pivotal chapter at the center of the book, Massie is much more interested in the personalities involved the naval arms race between Germany and the UK. The result is a book of high politics and biography.

I was mostly familiar with Massie by way of his massive biography of Peter the Great that I read in high school, and individual scenes showed many of the same flairs. Most chapters followed one or more characters, using a mini-biography to chart a particular developments, and Massie works to bring those characters to life with little details like their smoking habits and gustatory tendencies (it is little wonder so many of them suffered from gout). The picture of Otto von Bismarck and King Edward VII smoking like chimneys and Bismarck staring a table full of people down over a plate of pâté are images not likely to leave me any time soon, but the need to paint a new portrait for nearly every chapter also serves to cover a lot of the same ground through each repeated character.

The issue to my mind was that that the high political approach too often put the focus on the arms race between Germany and England as it played out in the halls of Parliament and the German Reichstag and in the personal letters between two royal families. This is not to say it is wholly uninteresting. I was only loosely familiar with the origins of the Boer war, for instance, or just how much of a international incident it became because the German establishment saw it as a war of British aggression, which was a reasonable, if not wholly accurate, interpretation. Similarly, given the seriously extravagant costs of building and maintaining these fleets, explaining how seriously the British government took its mandate of maintaining an overwhelming advantage that served to explain the international arms race and I was fascinated to learn that the day of Franz Ferdinand’s assassination, British battleships were in Kiel on their way to tour Baltic ports.

However, personality-driven approach worked particularly well when exploring the principal characters in the Royal Navy. The middle portion of Dreadnought leading up to the ship itself introduces the reader to the likes of Admiral John (Jacky) Fisher, whose oversight led to the construction of the Dreadnought and sweeping naval reforms, and his arch-rival Admiral Charles Beresford.

In sum, I found Dreadnought to be a highly frustrating book. In part, I went into it hoping that there were would be more, well, boats. Beyond their relative absence, however, there lies a more substantive critique: Dreadnought is frustratingly uneven. Massies’ richly detailed, biographically-centered narrative largely focuses on the building of a bipolar world between Germany and the UK, with other countries generally appearing in the story only insofar as they connect to one of his protagonists. That France, Italy, Austria-Hungary, and other naval powers were building up their own fleets gets mentioned, but is of secondary concern to the “coming armageddon,” while the fact that British companies were constructing Dreadnoughts for the Ottoman Empire gets omitted.

Now, one of the hallmarks of a poor review is to critique an author for not writing the book he or she wanted them to write. I would have preferred a more traditional naval history, either of the Dreadnought as a style of ship that got only about fifteen years of ruling the seas or a social history of the British navy. Massie is telling a different story, however, one that is a more sophisticated spin on the idea of a family rivalry that spurred on a global war. But even as a more sophisticated spin, I found the narrow focus on these two powers is limiting and incomplete. For instance, the discontinuities between the personalities of the British navy on the one side and the German army leading to a discussion of the German navy primarily through the lens of politics on the other led to an imbalance even just between these two powers. To be sure, there was a lot of information packed into this lengthy tomb but I couldn’t help but feel that Massey’s style was better suited to the biography of one or more people than it was to the story of this particular arms race.

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I remain better at writing then reading of late, but am still holding out hope that I will write about some of the recent mysteries I have read as well as Kevin Gannon’s pedagogy manifesto Radical Hope. I also recently finished Maja Novak’s bizarre satire about Slovenia’s transition to a capitalist economy, Feline Plague, and have nearly completed Cixin Liu’s Death’s End, the concluding volume to the trilogy that began with The Three-Body Problem. Liu’s trilogy has gotten better as it went along, building out a future history of humanity in the mode of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series or Olaf Stapledon’s First and Last Man.

Salt

As of April 29, 2020, the WHO declared that “most people consume too much salt—on average….twice the recommended maximum levels of intake,” and laid out guidelines for reducing salt intake. Increasing consumption of processed foods has gone hand in hand with the growth of cities, leading people to consume more salt, saturated fats, and sugars and less fresh fruits and vegetables. Fresh food has always been one of the limiting factors for urban areas, but the modern solution of introducing heavily processed and preserved foods has introduced new health complications.

This was not always the case. Ancient cities, for instance, often relied on imported grain that could be transported long distances without spoiling. In these cases, getting enough salt was a significant concern. Before the advent of reliable refrigeration, though, food preservation required salt, which, in turn led to labor-intensive operations to evaporate salt from the seas in order to fuel the production of fermented and aged foods, and for adding directly to fish like cod in order to preserve them for future consumption.

In Salt, Mark Kurlansky evaluates the production of salt in a global context, aiming in the process to offer a history of the world as defined by this one commodity. He is partially successful and offers a portrait of food production around the world with a wealth of details.

Individual episodes of this story were fascinating. For instance, I was struck by the lengths taken to ensure salt production, including elaborate brining pools to encourage evaporation of sea water and exceedingly deep mines in China to extract rock salt. Likewise, the discussion of individual foods like cod and hams, products that were largely made possible by the widespread availability of salt, were right up my gastronomic alley.

And yet, I was often frustrated by Salt. The problem is in Kurlansky’s attempt to weave the history of salt through the history of the world. Sections where he dug into the history of the industry worked exceedingly well, but other sections examined historical events like the French Revolution in such a way that it blew the importance of salt out of proportion. In the chapter on the American Civil War, for instance, he alternated between a fascinating discussion of Avery Island, the birthplace of Tabasco Sauce, and accounts of the US Navy destroying southern saltworks. The former was great, the latter I thought less enlightening in that it offered only a partial portrait of the war while also adding only marginally to the story of the mineral.

However, the biggest problem I had with Salt is that it is a book rich in detail and light in narrative through-line.In a highly technical book this lack of narrative would be less of an issue, but here I found the lack to make sections of the book rather slow going one chapter didn’t neatly lead to the next in any way except that they both explored aspects of the salt industry. Kurlansky’s overarching thesis is that salt was really important in world history, which is hard to deny, but also doesn’t offer a clear way forward to carry out that argument (as I might tell my students). I might go back to Salt to season some of my history classes, but as a commodity history its broad scope and argument were not to my taste.

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In addition to the backlog of books I haven’t written about (yet), I recently finished Robert Massie’s Dreadnought, after which I am now in the market for a book that actually talks about the development of the British Navy from the end of the Napoleonic Wars through at least World War One since my go-to historian on the topic, N.A.M. Rodgers, evidently never published the third volume of his history of the British Navy. I am now reading Maja Novak’s The Feline Plague, a magical-realism novel about Slovenia’s transition from communism to capitalism in the early 1990s.

Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World

David Epstein, Range

My academic research focuses on ancient Greece, but I genuinely enjoy teaching beyond my specialty because my interests are broad an eclectic. I sometimes joke to my partner (who I met in graduate school) that the three areas I considered pursuing for graduate work in history were Ancient Greece, 18th-century naval warfare, and 20th century US diplomatic history. Recently I’ve wandered down rabbit holes into food history and have particularly been enjoying East and South Asian history. The idea of studying just one thing for the rest of my life sounds unbearably tedious and teaching a wide range of classes (or at least varying how I teach World History) is a convenient excuse to read more widely.

I don’t know that my eclectic reading habits or historical interests has particularly improved my scholarship, but it has certainly improved my teaching and writing, and caused the basic tenets of David Epstein’s Range to resonate with me.

Epstein opens with the comparison of Tiger and Roger, two accomplished athletes, one of whom was laser focused from infancy on his sport, the other who played everything except his sport for most of his childhood. Both excelled, but Epstein asks which success was more probable. Despite the intuitive expectation that the person who specialized his entire life (let’s call him Tiger) followed the “better” path, Epstein argues, Roger is a better model to follow. Where Tigers are very good at solving problems within a narrow field with predictable parameters, Rogers can catch up quickly and are are frequently more creative when adjusting to new environments or when facing fields without clearly defined rules.

In short, Epstein makes the case that in a world where an increasing number of well-defined tasks are automated and economic and social pressures push people toward specialization, we should actually be encouraging generalization.

I picked up range after listening to an interview with Epstein where he mostly talked about the value of cross-training, but while there are lessons there, I was a surprised how little discussion of sports there was in the book. Rather, Range is a broad manifesto that talks about everything from scientists and musicians to charity CEOs and game designers. As with many books of its ilk, Range uses concrete examples to offer concrete advice on leadership—promoting diversity, emphasizing communication over hierarchy, empowering employees—as well as useful life advice that taking the time to find your fit rather than locking in early produces better results all around.

In my opinion, though, both the strongest and weakest aspects of the book came down to what it said about education. Granted, as someone in the education field, everything starts to look that way. In addition to several explicit sections on teaching itself, Epstein swipes obliquely supposed outcomes of the education system throughout the book, taking aim at the suggestion that graduates need to specialize early and highlighting the perils of teaching to the test. I agreed in principle with everything Epstein highlights: test performance does not equal learning, efficiency is not a universal good, there is value in struggling to learn something. There are absolutely valuable lessons in terms of how we teach, but I nevertheless came away extremely frustrated with the presentation of education.

For instance, Epstein uses a personal anecdote from his MA thesis at Columbia where he says “I had committed statistical malpractice” because “I had a big database and hit a computer button to run a common statistical malpractice, never having been taught to think deeply (or at all) about how that statistical analysis even worked.” He follows up by quoting a statistician who says that the rush to produce research prohibits metacognition. In short, the specialization and speed interferes with the quality of the work, despite metacognition gaining increased traction in education circles. Similarly, he offers another anecdote about a primary school teacher asking students leading questions when they struggled to come up with the answers. Both of these anecdotes, and another about a professor critical of colleagues who only care about the interesting facts learned from years of increasingly narrow study (albeit while talking about Plato, Aristotle, Hobbes, Marx, and Nietzsche, which shows a certain…range), offer insight into the education system, but, to my mind, not quite what Epstein is going for.

The focus of Epstein’s critique is on the practitioners, rather than on the bad practices encouraged by the culture of credentialism and testing. When the a system requires teachers to prepare students for a standardized test or to publish in academic journals and funnel students into career tracks from early on in college, then the system creates the exact problem that Epstein rightly identifies. Moreover, Epstein makes the case that generalization is good for everyone, but it has the greatest utility for young people because it helps foster creativity, critical thinking, and allows them to find fields that fit their skills.

For as much as aspects of the presentation bothered me, Range is a compelling read. Epstein isn’t against specialization, but makes an important critique of dominant cultural trends that prioritize efficiency and specialization over taking the time to think and reflect across different fields.

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I had hoped to finish Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer this weekend, but that was before protests against police violence and institutional racism erupted across the United States and then predictably escalated, often as the result of police action. I spent most of the weekend following local news from across the country.