Academic Style

About a year and a half ago I was sitting in a meeting with a college administrator as part of a campus visit for a tenure track job. One of the people who had given me the campus tour immediately before the meeting had tipped me that he was a basketball player, so we chatted about that before turning to the more serious matters like teaching philosophies and the trajectory of the university. He wanted to talk about my research, of course, so I gave the elevator-pitch for my research project. Overall the meeting went well, though I did not get the job. At this point I would be hard pressed to recall much of it beyond broad impressions and the odd fact, but there is one exchange that I remember vividly.

At one point I responded to a question about who I saw as the audience for my research by saying that I am, in essence, writing for my younger self. I mostly remember this answer because it took my interlocutor aback and led to an exchange where we unpacked what I meant, namely that while I like having my writing contribute to scholarly debate and being read by professional historians and classicists, that is not who I see I see myself writing for when I am sitting down to write.

That is, my Platonic-ideal of audience is myself as an undergrad, a young student reading (some) academic articles simply because I liked history. Intelligent, interested, but by no means a specialist despite what a handful of my friends seemed to think. The articles I have published, as well as those that I am currently working on, are specific enough that they might lose any reader not already interested in ancient Greek history, but my goal, at minimum, is that any one who has had the equivalent of a survey course should be able to pick them up and follow along.

To my mind, the inapproachability of scholarship is more often an issue of writing than of ideas because of a perception that scholarship needs to be written in a certain way in order to be coded “academic” or “intelligent.” There is enough peacocking and posturing in higher education that this concern is not entirely unfounded, but it also realizes harmful stereotypes and gives the false impression that most academic research is inherently obscurantist. I am not here to trash nuanced, specific, and technical writing, which is simultaneously necessary at times and not what I am interested in writing.

I have found myself thinking back to this conversation a lot recently as I work on the book based on my dissertation even while sitting at a crossroads that may lead me away from academic life. At issue is how I want to write my book. I had a brief conversation in the fall 2018 with an eminent scholar about my revision plans, that I planned to revise with considerations given toward having a complete (narrative) arc, for the study, he was taken aback and asked why I would want to write something he considered “popular” history for my first book. His reaction was, I think, partly based on a misunderstanding about the nature of the changes I was proposing, but they also stemmed from genuine concern that if a first book were deemed insufficiently academic, it could hurt an academic career.

This scholar’s concern may be moot if my career in academia is indeed drawing to a close, but since I have other reasons for wanting to put this book into the world his words continue to echo. Without explicitly saying so, he implied that writing approachable history is a privilege afforded only to two groups: scholars with an unimpeachable reputation or people outside the academy. This attitude is hardly unique and I have made light of it by noting that every (male) historian of ancient Greece who reaches a certain eminence writes his biography of Alexander the Great.

And yet, when I think about the book(s) I want to write, I come back to same basic position that I expressed that afternoon in Southern California: that the audience I imagine I am writing for is myself as a student. I was not a normal undergraduate student—clearly, I defied all common sense and did a PhD in this stuff—but that figure serves as a stand-in for an intelligent audience who has not yet become completely immersed. I was an enthusiastic but not terribly sophisticated reader who loved a clearly written book that taught him something new. I have come a long way since then, but even now I can be intimidated by certain types of academic monographs if more because they present as more subtly and impressively academic than the books I want to write.

It is one thing to say in a book proposal—or blog post—that you intend your work to be accessible to any educated audience and quite another to put that into practice. I am not even sure that my writing succeeds as well as I would like, even as I find myself writing quite a lot. (While helping a friend craft a sensitive email recently, I calculated that I’ve written more than 750,000 words over the past decade.) This also isn’t the first time I’ve fretted in this space about authorial voice or the sorts of things I want to write, but in as much as I have projects I want to work on even as I prepare for a likely transition to another line of work these questions have taken on renewed significance.

Certain types of writing erects barriers audiences that ought to be invited in. What bothers me about using “popular” as a subtle dig at approachable history and hence at the work of anyone who wants to write approachable history is how it serves as a form of gatekeeping. That is, the implication that popular means a book stripped of its argument, research, and importance when that absolutely need not be the case. The critique isn’t even necessarily born out in practice except in marketing.

What Would I Write

I am in no way a poet, but a year or two back I jotted down a few lines on my phone. I have toyed with publishing this a few times since, pulling back because the words came from a place of frustration.

What would I write
If I didn’t care what they thought
What would I say
If I weren’t trying to stay in a game

Would it be unhinged poetry
Fiery rhetoric or
Tender prose

Public consumption
Private catharsis or
Shouts and whimpers left unheard

Would I grow
Fizzle or
Explode

Or just fade away

I have been thinking about these lines again as the spring 2020 semester drew to a close.

When I started going on the job market during graduate school, I had resolved that I would give the academic job market at least three cycles post-graduation. Without going into too many details about the academic job market, I knew that the odds of landing an ancient history were not good for anyone, regardless of where they received their degree, but figured that three years was enough time to build a bit of a publishing track record, teaching portfolio, and to polish my documents. My hope was that I would be able to secure something full-time and, preferably, multi-year that I could use as a springboard to a permanent job.

In a way I was not wrong. I published a couple of articles in 2018 and have several more pieces of scholarship finished for edited collections or ready to submit to journals, and am working on selling my first book, all while scraping together teaching jobs in four departments at two universities on a semester-by-semester basis. In the 2018/2019 cycle, I had four job interviews and was chosen for a campus visit. In 2019/2020, I had another four interviews and a campus visit before COVID-19 effectively cancelled the academic job market. Further, the same forces that caused the academic job market to crash have dramatically diminished my chances of teaching in the fall semester. At the end of the three job market cycles I gave myself, not only am I staring at a career transition during a global economic crisis for the second time in my adult life (I graduated from college in 2008), but also the short-term employment that I had been using as a bridge is unavailable.

However, this is not a post about employment. My partner has a contract for next year and I have savings that I can rely on while I figure out what comes next. I will line up in the lists against the windmills once more next year, but I am one of many people expecting a particularly spare cycle even by recent standards.

This past spring semester was exhausting even before the transition to distance-learning redoubled my workload. I was teaching five classes on topics that ranged from all of world history to the Vietnam war, so, while I have had larger numbers of students in a number of semesters, this was the largest range of courses I have ever taught. Usually I emerge from the semester exhausted and ready to rest for a week or two before I can turn my attention to my writing projects.

What I discovered this semester was a geyser of words bubbling just below the surface such that the past several weeks have marked one of my most productive writing stretches in almost a year. I am entering into a period of academic uncertainty with more writing projects on my plate than ever, more ideas for future projects than ever, and more enthusiasm for writing than ever. So much, in fact, that I opened a new document on whim last week and started free writing something that is half-forward, half-proposal about a topic I’ve been thinking about for maybe a decade and a half.

All of which brings me back to the lines I jotted down and quoted above. With the exceptions of this site, a private journal, and an intermittent epistolary habit with friends and family, everything I have written over quite a few years has been geared toward securing an academic job. That means peer-reviewed journal articles, reviews of the latest scholarly books, and working to publish my dissertation.

All of these publications function on a system where the academic employer, rather than the publisher, provides the bulk of both research funds and financial compensation. Publishers do incur costs, but journals function on prestige system for both authors and reviewers and the low print runs of academic books mean that authors don’t make much profit, even though both books and journal articles require significant time and energy investment.

If this marks the end of my run in higher education, which isn’t a certainty but does seem increasingly likely, then publishing research in academic outlets is little more than an exercise in nostalgia. I like research, but research takes time, and I am having a hard time envisioning doing that work without hope of compensation when I could—and should— be looking to write for a wider audience.

I have long approached academic publishing as a second job much as many commercial authors work two or more jobs. Other people might approach them as two parts of a single whole, but the nature of my academic contracts after graduate school have never included a research component. My primary employment was teaching. My second job was research and writing. My hope was that I could someday combine the two into a single paycheck, which, in turn, meant prioritizing a certain type of writing. This latest turn in my relationship to academia means changing these priorities.

I am going to finish the academic work already well-underway as a matter of pride. I can see publishing pieces other than book reviews in academic journals again someday in the future, but that prospect is contingent on secure employment in whatever form that ends up taking. In the meantime, the words are coming and it is just a matter of directing them in a productive direction.

#AcWri2019

Last year I wrote a handful of posts reflecting on my relationship with academic writing, using Scholarshape’s reflective #AcWri project. My writing was inconsistent this time last year, cycling through several rough weeks of writing followed by one good one, but I still maintained something that resembled a regular writing practice.

This semester, much to my great frustration, I had to give up my regular practice before the end of September.

Writing during the semester is always a challenge, and not being in a stable position only compounds the difficulty. In addition to the usual preparation and grading, both magnified by the financial pressure to take on a heavy teaching load, there is the anxiety of the job market, both for permanent jobs and for classes for the next semester.

Going into this semester I had resolved not to submit any abstracts this year. I quite like giving papers despite chronic struggles with anxiety, but preparing them takes time and time has been in short supply, so I had hoped to grant myself forgiveness in advance. FOMO (fear of missing out) is real, though, and I’ve sent myself into a neurotic spiral on at least two occasions, once while seeing updates from a conference and again from a reminder that a deadline for proposals is coming up next week for a conference I am almost certainly going to attend in the spring. But my situation this year is in flux: I lack institutional support for conference travel and there is a very real possibility that this will be my last year in academia, so for the time being I am resigned to collecting ideas and reminding myself that it is okay to rest.

For similar reasons, my writing has largely been stuck on the same topics for some time. My primary focus is still my book manuscript on Classical Ionia, which I described last year, but I have become increasingly interested in memory in ancient Greece and begun to dip my toe into a future project on bread and bread baking. The problem of course is that research and writing take mental energy that I have not had while also teaching five classes and applying for jobs.

On the other hand, I am almost done with job applications, I can taste the end of the semester, and I am practically aching to get back to my writing projects. Regardless of whether I continue to teach at a college level after this year, I have ambitions of continuing to write and want to at least finish the projects I have begun. I am not there yet and there will invariably be new difficulties––among them, interview season, figuring what happens next, holiday travel, and recurrences of depression and anxiety––I am close enough that I am looking forward to reestablishing a writing routine.

First Day Fragments

Last August I posted some assorted thoughts going into the new academic year. One post does not a tradition make, but I liked the reflective practice.

Going into my third year of teaching post-PhD, I have been reflecting on the mismatch between the stated learning objectives and the way many, though certainly not all, history courses are taught. Lower-level surveys particularly suffer because they often have higher enrollments as students are required to take them by outside forces that agree in a general about the importance of history, but have little idea what that actually entails.

The result is that the students are tossed into a lecture hall where they receive an information dump from a knowledgable person and (maybe) some time talking about primary sources. In a perfect world with a good lecturer, students who do the reading, and invested TAs, this system offers a way to scale up the mandate for students to learn some history.

But the world we live in is not perfect and these courses can resemble an information dump that students recall just long enough to take the exam.

There are a number of guides for how to improve the “dreaded survey course” that often boil down to “do less” so that the students can do more. This is good advice that I start the semester following and invariably end up clinging tighter and tighter to the sound of my own voice as the semester spirals beyond my ability to adequately manage a full discussion every day.

Nevertheless, I have be changing the format of my lectures to better model historical practice. For instance, I have begun thinking about my classes in terms of narratives and arguments, both in the big picture and in individual classes. The overall syllabus has a trajectory and each individual class has its own thesis. In the slideshow I will often include the thesis at the outset and then use subsequent slides to lay out the evidence for that thesis, taking the time to explore the consequences of this evidence as a class.

Thinking about the class in these terms also embeds a structure that both focuses the content to prevent sprawl and allows it to build on itself as the semester goes along. The further my classes are from my field of research, though, the harder it is to articulate these narratives ahead of time.

ΔΔΔ

Since around midsummer I have noticed a marked improvement in my mood, and even commented on it with regard to my writing. Since then, I have written a few #AcWri threads on Twitter about approaching writing as a discipline and a practice and equating it to physical workouts.

For years now I have been making sure to prioritize my physical wellbeing, using the basketball, running, lifting weights and other exercises to work out stress and stay healthy. My workouts change periodically (recently I’ve been working on flexibility with regular yoga routines), but I make a point of staying active even when the semesters get busy. This year I added mandatory downtime, resolving to take at least one day entirely away from work each weekend.

With this semester poised to be even busier than usual, I need protect time for writing for reasons that go beyond professional output. The hard part will be doing it in a way that preserves balance; simply adding one more obligation to my already full dance card is a recipe for burnout.

ΔΔΔ

I teach five courses this semester, two of which are entirely new and a third that is substantially overhauled from a summer course to a full semester. As a result, I teach everything from the first half* of the world history survey to colonial America, to a survey of American history after the Civil War, to two seminars on Classical Reception.

(The colloquialisms for these surveys are ludicrous. To call all of human history from the earliest civilizations through Columbus’ voyages “half” is patently absurd, even if it is half of the class time dedicated to the world history survey.)

This many classes, and particularly this many *new* classes, takes an enormous amount of time and energy, but they also provide me opportunities to indulge my interest in times and places I don’t usually work on. I may not be the best qualified person to teach every course going into it, but beyond knowing how to craft assignments, find readings, and help students develop their analytical skills, I hope that my own curiosity proves infectious.

ΔΔΔ

The weather in Missouri turned hot and humid just in time for classes to start. The heat index currently sits at 106 at the end of the first Monday of the semester, making it hard to believe that summer has ended. But time flies and I have a lot to do, so here we go.

A Midyear Writing Reflection

I aim to spend an hour a day writing. Only time actually spent writing without interruption counts, and my calculation can be idiosyncratic. Distractions from Twitter, non-musical background noise, etc. don’t count, obviously, but neither does dedicated reading or research, while editing for style and working through an article for a footnote does, provided that I have the manuscript open. Writing here is bonus.

I subscribe to the opinion that a scholar and aspiring writer in my position should write every day, minimum five days a week. (I have kept my resolution of one weekend day entirely free from work this year, and most summer weekends are totally work-free.) Sometimes this is easier said than done, and in the roughly two years I have been tracking the time I spend writing as a form of accountability there are predictable dips at the height of the semester.

I have tried to find ways to work around the fact that my brain is pretty well shot after I finish teaching in the semester, whether by writing first thing in the morning (sometimes as early as 4 AM) or by taking a nap before buckling down for a short period or just hoping that I can find a groove in a twenty-minute Pomodoro session and keep going. Realistically, the distractions of grading and course-prep often mean I do not write at all some days.

By contrast, I know I am in a good place with my work when not only do I look forward to getting into the writing, but I end up in a trance-like state that I more associate with the feeling of being on fire on a basketball court. On a lot of recent days, for instance, I will start in on one of my current writing projects, get into a rhythm, write for an hour or more without looking up, take a break to use the restroom and get a drink of water, and then do it again.

This is a summertime rhythm. There are few distractions on campus and while I could be spending more time preparing for my fall classes, neither am I totally neglecting them. Writing like this is fun.

I still get frustrated that all of these projects weren’t finished yesterday, of course, but in these times it is easier to focus on finishing a paragraph, a section, a topic, or just a footnote.

It helps that I am happy with how the projects are shaping up, but neither is this a prerequisite. The in-progress piece I think is best is one that I spent most of last semester wrestling with, while the things I am euphorically banging out now have some good ideas embedded in them, but will need a lot of cleanup. Today was particularly troublesome on that front, taking a while to find a rhythm and, once I was there, mostly resulted in identifying problems with the section rather than finding answers. But all of this is okay because I can see progress toward a final product.

I have been trying to write this post for over a week now, ironically during the period when I have been able to find that rhythm in my academic writing. Then I go to write this post and find that I lack words, think it would be better as a Twitter thread, and come up blank there too, because this is not a straightforward project update or a frivolous, frolicky ode to summer writing.

Instead, I have been grappling with the question “why now?” The answer, I think, lies in my mental health.

I spent most of the past academic year depressed, with the condition exacerbated by exhaustion and anxiety. I acknowledged as much in a reflection at the end of last year, but it wasn’t until several weeks after the end of the spring semester that I started to see progress. Anxiety about the future, money, and the job market and exhaustion from following the news have not gone anywhere. Thinking about either too much is liable to produce a visceral reaction, but for the past several weeks they have been easier to cope with.

Not much has changed. I made minor tweaks to my diet to eat better and have been losing a little weight, but I didn’t start seeing a therapist or taking medication. Even my deliberate mindfulness, as gamified through Headspace, has lapsed, though I have been working to apply those principles to my daily life. Mostly, I have strategically been trying to do less, and to focus on doing what I do well.

This post is, in effect, an exercise in mindfulness. I wanted to acknowledge my struggles with anxiety and depression, particularly over the past six months, so that when I start to feel the effects again I can be proactive. But I also admire people who are open about mental health issues in academia and wanted to acknowledge one of the ways in which they have affected me.

Writing is hard. I end a good day’s writing session mentally tired much the way I emerge from a strenuous workout physically tired. Depression and anxiety are equally exhausting, but in a far less rewarding way. Dealing with both simultaneously might as well be one of the labors of Heracles.

(Full disclosure, I was looking for another metaphor, but, not finding one, decided that Hera would have foiled the big lunk with this challenge.)

If any of this sounds familiar, know that you are not alone, but also that you should address the underlying depression. Use therapy if that works for you, or find time every day to go for a walk away from the constant thrum of rage coming from the smart phone. Whatever works for you. Life is much more manageable when you’re not exhausted from constantly wrangling mental health issues.

Should any graduate students and other academics who happen to read this want a sympathetic ear, please hit me up, but I hear one of my writing projects calling my name now.

The Twilight of the Blogs

A few months ago Bill Caraher declared that this is a “golden age” of blogging about the ancient world, a sentiment that I find hard to disagree with despite the popular idea of a blogpocaplyse. And yet when Neville Morley posted last week about a decline in blog traffic, that, too rang true.

Caraher subsequently posted a reflection on the changing rhythm of blogs, suggesting: “Instead of blogs maturing into a less-formal and more intimate complement to the scholarly discourse, blogs have become places where we negotiate the social conscience of our fields.

I am perhaps a little too aware of my blog traffic. Since switching to the WordPress platform I have had slow, but steady year over year growth. Although much of this growth is attributable to the WordPress reader, the single largest referrer, particularly when a post blows up, is Twitter.

(The exception to this statement is an intermittent flurry of activity from India any time there is an election because I once wrote about Intizar Husain’s Basti.)

Ultimately, though, I am small potatoes. “Growth” here is relative in that I started virtually from scratch and do very little promotion outside linking to each post in a tweet.

Nor do I really engage with scholarship or sources like most substantial classics-related blogs. I’ve written about this before, but, in short, my writing has passed through several iterations before settling into what it is now: a catchall where I can write about things for which I do not have another outlet. Writing helps me organize my thoughts, and, for instance, I don’t write about books for any other outlet (at the moment––I would love to start), so those posts go here.

At the same time, blog posts are as resource where I can direct people should I not have space to give a substantial answer. To give just one example, a Twitter-friend asked about The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break, a book I wrote about last year and so in addition to a short answer on Twitter, I was able to point to the longer thoughts here. Similarly, I wrote reflections about the Society for Classical Studies Annual Meeting in San Diego and in defense of graduate programs at non-elite schools, as well as posting a reading list for teaching at the college level. Like the examples Caraher gives, the most trafficked posts are those grappling with the social or structural issues in academia and rely on viral (at least by my standards) transmission.

Other platforms serve other purposes. Podcasts give the sense of being a silent participant in the conversation. Instagram allows me to post pictures of things I bake and places I go. Twitter tends toward the ephemeral, albeit with a long public record, as it flies by in quick drips that fit both hot-take culture and the large number of demands on our attention.

Does this mean that the current blog landscape is populated not by survivors living in a new Eden, but those who are already dead and just don’t know it?

Yes and no. A few years ago I noticed that a blurring between reportage and analysis or opinion on news sites. The suggested “articles” were increasingly from the latter category, on blogs hosted by the site. This says to me that the problem of declining traffic isn’t a matter of “blogs,” but of unaffiliated blogs. Based on the comments on Morley’s post, I am hardly alone in struggling to see value in writing substantial posts for a personal blog since the odds of it being picked up are significantly lower.

But, as Caraher notes, blogging has matured in a somewhat different direction, and each blog will reflect the individual author(s). Traffic is a sort of validation, but reasons to blog exist beyond that alone. So long as I see value in using this space to organize my thoughts I will continue to blog. At the moment I am confident enough that I plan to use student-run blogs in two of my classes for the upcoming semester.

Summer Academic Plans

About this time last year I wrote a post setting some summer reading goals that, ultimately, proved too ambitious. One of my resolutions for 2019 was to take better care of my physical and mental health, and I need to continue that through this summer while also making some headway on various projects.

Projects

I have three article-length projects at various stages of completion, and a fourth shorter piece.

I spent most of the spring semester working on a chapter for an edited collection on the use of history in the Attic Orators. This chapter offers a new interpretation of the Athenian conquest of Samos in 366 through the lens of cultural memory. When I started writing I thought one thing before writing myself into the weeds with the realization that the traditional narrative for this conquest is itself a historical memory and thus that I had to weave the two together. I’m not going to hit my initial target of June 1 for a complete draft of my contribution because there are too many knots left to unravel.

The second article-length manuscript I hope to finish this summer is a revision and expansion of a conference paper I gave reconciling Arrian’s account of Alexander the Great’s reception at Ephesus with the longer trajectory of 4th century Ephesian history. I have been ruminating on this paper for about a year now and need to decide whether it is stronger to frame this as a historiographical contribution about Arrian or a revision of 4th-century Ephesian history.

If all goes well with the first two writing projects or I need to put one of them down for the time being, I also have a third article-length project simmering on the back burner. This project is a revisionary analysis of the Athenian imposition of empire on fifth-century Ionia. I submitted a version of the manuscript, receiving reader reports that suggested that my definition of Ionia was too narrow for the argument and that the inquiry needed to be expanded to look at the entirety of the Ionian-Carian district. I started on this last November, but didn’t have the energy to finish the new research.

The final shorter project is a public-facing article based on a suggestion made by one of my fellow panelists at the CAMWS annual meeting. I have been meaning to pitch a piece of this sort for a few years, but draw a blank when I try to decide what I to write. With this one I am about 75% of the way there and just need to develop this skill.

Of course the elephant in this drafting room are the book projects, present and future. The advice from senior scholars that this is the most important thing for securing a permanent job in the field is particularly comforting in that this is at least somewhat out of my hands.

Progress on my dissertation book manuscript (a new history of Classical and Early Hellenistic Ionia) slowed significantly after I submitted my book proposal. The sense of direction slowly, and then quickly, evaporated while waiting for feedback, and through several stressful and exhausting semesters that included teaching, applying for jobs, and managing a few interconnected health issues I allowed my focus to lapse. That is not to say that work entirely stopped, but I need to redouble my attention this summer even while I wait for feedback.

At the same time, I intend to spend time working on a book proposal for the second book project (a history of the city of Ephesus), because the press accepts and evaluates proposals for the series I have in mind without any completed chapters. The challenge on this one is that I still have a fair amount of reading to do in order to write the proposal.

These are ambitious summer writing plans, but I am not expecting to finish them all. Instead, I would like to finish a few of these projects while laying the groundwork for some of my future research.

Reading Plans

Last summer I set an ambitious reading goal, intending to branch out from a narrow focus on the Greek world. I read a handful of very good articles, but predictably fell short. I hope to return to some of these articles this summer, but mostly I want to get to the stack of recent scholarship on Greece and Rome that have piled up up from various conference purchases. My target for this is one per week, set low in hopes of exceeding the mark rather than falling short.

I started on this yesterday with Matt Simonton’s Classical Greek Oligarchy (Princeton 2017). Other books on this list include Emily Mackil’s Creating a Common Polity (University of California Press 2016), Kyle Harper’s The Fate of Rome (Princeton 2017), and Evanglelos Venetis’ The Persian Alexander (I.B. Tauris 2017). There are also a handful of books not on my shelves, most notably Donna Zuckerberg’s Not All Dead White Men (Harvard 2018), that I would like to finally crack open.

Teaching

This is the category that is most in flux. The summer class I was scheduled to teach fell through, which gives more time for research and prep for future classes, but in my precariously-employed situation things could change.

And yet I also hope to hone my craft this summer, particularly by continuing to read up on best practices. My summer reading list for this includes John Warner’s The Writer’s Practice and Norman Eng’s Teaching College.

As of writing this post, I am looking to prepare three classes for the fall semester. One is a World History (pre-1500) survey that I need to update and adapt from a three-week summer course where I want to think through the course design from the top down. The other two are topics courses for first-year honors students. I am doing two different topics here, one titled “Monsters, Humans, and Monstrous Humans” and the other “The Afterlives of Alexander the Great.” These courses are reading-intensive, and the latter requires some selection of what readings we will focus on from the disparate Alexander traditions, but I am looking forward to diving into the preparation for both.

ΔΔΔ

I may check in on these points from time to time throughout the summer, but, other than writing about the pedagogy books, I have no particular plans to do so until the start of the new semester. In the meantime, expect business as usual around here––mostly posts about books I read for fun and a smattering of other topics as I feel moved to write.

Thesis or unThesis

The days are getting longer and pollen is in the air, which means the end of the spring semester approaches. As usual, I find myself reflecting on my courses and thinking about ways that I can improve my practice.

Some of these reflections are mundane––post readings earlier, move content around, allot more time for a particular reading; others are more foundational and abstract.

I have written before about how I design my to require students to write and to think. In some courses I think this backfires, such as when students may believe I am violating an unspoken contract about the expectations of a gen-ed course, but I generally get good results and see marked improvement in my students over the course of the semester.

Going into these writing assignments, I tell my students that every piece of writing has an argument, whether implicit or explicit, and that their writing needs one, too.

In practice, this means that everything they write needs to have a thesis. The problem is that the moment I invoke the T-word, they fall back on the rote lessons about thesis-writing: that it needs to be a single sentence and end in a tri-colon set of points that will make up the three body paragraphs of their five paragraph essay.

Students can do these exercises blindfolded and in their sleep. While working in the US History surveys as a graduate student, I used to run my class through exercises on this after receiving rounds of papers that lacked an argument. The theses developed in these exercises were more functional than earth-shattering, but the problems started to crop up the moment students were asked to start using evidence to build a paper, as though the two practices were totally disconnected and the thesis only existed to receive its mandatory check-mark.

Recently I have tried to address this disconnect by having my students write a lot of theses, just without telling them that is what they are doing. In surveys of any sort, I assign weekly quizzes online that ask questions from lecture and readings and allow retakes. Most of the questions are multiple choice, fill in the blank, true/false, etc, and are designed for accountability and recall.

Every quiz also has at least one essay-style question, asking students to respond to a prompt in two or three sentences using evidence from the readings to support that answer.

In other words, write a thesis with a little bit of the evidence you would use to support that argument, but don’t finish writing the essay.

In lower-level classes, I keep this format through the semester, while in upper-level surveys, I start with one question (20% of the grade) and gradually expand until they make up the majority of the quiz (60–70%).

From my side of the desk, this format gives me ample opportunity to get a feel for what the class is picking up from lecture and the readings and, without committing to hours of grading, head off issues like casual sexism that they pick up from their sources.

(A class of 35 with two essay-style questions takes well under an hour to grade since it is a total of about six sentences per student.)

Equally important, though, it offers rewards for student writing. From these assignments alone, students in an intro survey will write at least 12 theses with evidence, on top of their other written assignments. In upper-level classes those numbers climb toward 30 or 40, with greater expectations for the use of sources.

Usually these written responses are good––thoughtful, careful, and creative–– all without ever mentioning the T-word.

This semester, though, I struggled with how to convey my expectations in longer assignments. The reason: in an effort to bypass problematic “rules” my students had learned regarded theses, I wrote my assignments without invoking the T-word.

The result was confusion and frustration all around. The students seemed to look at an assignment unmoored from their previous writing experiences and I had to belatedly explain that when I said their papers had to have an argument it indeed meant that they had to have a thesis, followed, inevitably, with a discussion of what a thesis is beyond the scope of the rigid formula.

Realistically these exchanges only took a few minutes before we were all on the same page again, but neither were they my finest moment in the classroom. And so I sit here at the end of April thinking about whether there is a way to forge new connections about the T-word, connections that break ingrained habits and help students conceptualize the thesis not as a check-box waiting to be ticked, but as a tool that encapsulates the point that the author wants to convey.

Polishing Your Prose

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Form and Content: a note on writing

“Do I have to write in paragraphs?”

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

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

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

Every format has strengths and weaknesses.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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