My 2020: Resolutions

As is now custom, my year-end navel gazing series ends with my resolutions for the new year.

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The eternal, nebulous, unquantifiable

  • Continue learning to let go of things that are beyond my control. Most things are.
  • Be more patient and charitable.
  • Smile more often.
  • Exercise to improve health, diet, flexibility and fitness, particularly since my schedule last semester got in the way of these healthy routines.
  • Take more time for mindfulness exercises, something that I have only really come back to at the end of 2020 in the form of daily yoga.

The specific, concrete, actionable

  • Take at least one day each weekend not working, as defined by no work email, no grading, no preparing for courses, and no academic writing. This was a really important habit for me in 2020 and I want to continue into 2021 or even expand it to, gasp, two days off on weekends.
  • I began a daily yoga routine (20+ minutes) at the end of 2020 and will continue that through 2021, as well as taking a daily 10-minute mindfulness/meditation break.
  • Lose ten pounds. I aim to accomplish this both by eating a little less and by gradually increasing my activity levels. I just need to get a new pair of running shoes first.
  • Complete the book manuscript that I’ve been working on based on my dissertation. I wrote this in as a goal in 2020, too, but I have a deadline now and may actually get it done!
  • I completed the two article-length pieces in 2020 even if I didn’t get them out. I want to get both piece out and draft one (1) more, either as a long public-facing piece or an academic article, depending on where it looks like my career is going.
  • Find (1) new academic book to review. This is a repeat from 2020, when I had two book reviews published.
  • Complete the next piece of my research project on bread in ancient Greece. (re-up from 2020)
  • I exceeded my target of reading (12) ancient history or classics books not connected to my research in 2020 even though I fell off dramatically in the second half of the year. I like the practice, so will re-up at at least (12), or one per month even though access might prove as much of an obstacle as time here.
  • I exceeded my goal of 52 other books for 2020 along with all of my diversity markers, but will re-up at the same level:
    • 33% of those books should be by women
    • At least (5) should be by African American authors
    • These books should represent at least (10) different countries and (7) different languages

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Finally, to conclude this series a message for readers: thank you for following along. I have some ideas of posts coming down the pipe in 2021, including an annual revision to my list of favorite novels, but, as usual, content here will reflect my year, what I have the energy to write about, and the fickle fortune of pursuing an academic career.

Whatever I write, I hope you’ll join me. In the meantime, may the coming year be one of warmth and joy for you as we all work to build a better future.

My 2020: Using My Words

Wait.

Hold up.

It’s December already?

It’s the end of December already?

As in, tomorrow is January 1, 2021?

I don’t believe you.

Time flies when you’re having fun, they say, but the real secret is that time flies when you stay busy. Was 2020 every busy. I got off to a roaring start teaching five different classes at two different institutions while also writing and applying for jobs, and then COVID happened. It took my classes online over a weekend and managed to stay one jump ahead for the rest of the semester, but when I emerged I discovered not only that the sudden contraction of university budgets had axed the jobs I had applied for but also that the places where I had been picking up classes didn’t need my services.

Since there was a pandemic going on and I wasn’t in imminent danger of being cast out on the street, I resolved to give myself a couple weeks to recover and work on writing projects. Pretty soon I had a bead on various other employment: an online class in Australia that ended up falling through, reviewing a manuscript that came with a bit of pay, some freelance editorial work. Then the classes started trickling in: one class for a school I’d previously worked (I ended up not teaching this one), then a community college class, then three courses at a local college. Suddenly I was teaching five classes on three different academic calendars at three institutions. Three of the classes I’d never taught before.

Oh, and I took a six week course on online pedagogy in the middle of the fall semester.

What I’m saying is that I’m still waiting for that part of lockdown where I get bored because I’ve exhausted all of my entertainment options.

My year-end essays each of the past few years have largely echoed each other as I grasped for new words to say the same thing. Increasingly, I wrote about my professional experience—giving in to the gremlin telling me to work harder, my failures on the academic job market, the anxiety and exhaustion that comes with being a very contingent professor—concluding last year that I’ve been experiencing stagnation.

In some ways, 2020 was much the same, only with lower peaks and lower valleys. I was more anxious and more tired than ever, but I am as proud of any of the writing I did this year as anything I have done in the past, inclusive of both the work that came out and the material still working its way toward daylight.

Only in the past few weeks have I started coming to grips with how 2020 was different.

The isolation brought on by the pandemic was more annoying than debilitating at first. I’ve lived too far from most friends and family for regular visits for more than a decade so when restrictions pushed everyone online, it actually brought many loved ones closer to me than they had been for some time. Similarly, I suddenly found myself more able to sleep with neither a commute nor an available gym. (I’m still trying to figure out replacement work outs that work with what I have available, though.) Work took more time, sure, but I find working toward clear goals relaxing, so I could often put my head down and dig in.

Reader, this was neither healthy, nor sustainable.

Our decision to be responsible and stay home for the holidays caused the isolation to crash home anew, balancing whatever physical rest we get by avoiding holiday travel with emotional strain of not seeing family.

Much of my exhaustion can be traced to the usual suspects (work, anxiety, depression), but this year has also brought into relief another source of exhaustion: rage. I spent so much time angry this year, often whipping from one target to another. Any list of triggers would be inadequate, and perhaps the most infuriating part is how few of conditions were actually new. COVID didn’t so much create problems as lay bare the fundamental structures of a society where public infrastructure (let alone any pretense of a social safety net) has been dismantled and sold for parts.

Forget a lockdown, many places in the United States didn’t put in place a mask ordinance. There is a restaurant in Jefferson City, MO, about twenty miles south of me, that only started requiring masks a month ago, and then only from 3–5 PM as special “COVID-safe” hours.

I am numb at the fact that hundreds of thousands of Americans have died and millions more could have long-term health complications—maybe now a dreaded pre-existing condition, who knows!—with millions more out of work or with limited income and yet so many people seem to have simply given up anything more than token efforts. Not to let a good crisis go to waste, the profits of billionaires have soared, the families of congresspeople engaged in what seems like blatant insider-trading, and the people in charge of overseeing a pandemic response either treated a deadly disease like a hoax or a PR-stunt. If the stock market doesn’t crash and the carnage is confined to your political opponents, then everything is fine, right? We could feed people and stimulate the economy, but have you considered the deficit? It has been a full year since COVID started and nine months since it started racing through the United States and just today I read reports about doses of the COVID vaccine spoiling because its rollout has been so haphazard that the clinic didn’t have “eligible” recipients.

I can feel the bile rising writing the preceding paragraphs, and they are just the tip of the iceberg.

Here’s the thing: none of things is going to change with the calendar flipping to 2021. Sure, a Biden administration will help a little given enough time to straighten out the official response and to take the mean edge off of some policies. But setting the goal at normalcy is tantamount to wanting to sweep everything that happened this year under the rug so that you don’t have to think about it anymore.

This is the point I keep coming back to as new year approaches. I have long maintained that teaching is what I can do to help make the world a better place, but my surety of that has been shaken over the past year. Doubts that began pre-COVID given the nature of contingent faculty work have only accelerated once the pandemic hit because it is almost impossible to do the sort of teaching I want to do while everyone involved was also coping with the pandemic. This may entail a career change, but I thought as much last year, too, so who knows.

If all of this sounds bleak, that is because I’ve spent my days recently cycling through rage and resignation. Compared to many people this year, I’m fine. I’m exhausted and little heavier than I’d like to be, but that’s what happens when you lose access to a gym and spend a lot of the year expanding your repertoire of baked goods. I am healthy, as are those closest to me, and I have a roof over my head and food on my plate. But this year has also made clear that we should not take these basic necessities for granted.

I might be ready to leave 2020 behind, but I have no intention of forgetting it anytime soon.

ΔΔΔ

This is the penultimate entry in my end-of-year wrap up series. The rest of the 2020 series includes: Best* Posts, By the Numbers, Lists of Note, and will be followed by resolutions.

Past essays in this series: 2019, 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015.

My 2020: Lists of Note


Every year around this time I try to make sense of my year that was. The series kicked off with a collection of the Best* posts, followed by a set of numbers that described my year. Today is a set of seven lists that look backward and one that looks forward.

Five favorite novels I read this year:

Seven favorite non-fiction books I read this year:

Five novels I’m looking forward to (maybe) reading in 2020 (no repeats from last year!):

  • American Pastoral, Philip Roth
  • An Unnecessary Woman, Rabih Alameddine
  • Last Train to Istanbul, Ayse Kulin
  • The Makioka Sisters, Junichiro Tanizaki
  • Piranesi, Susanna Clarke

Eight TV shows I was watching this year:

  • The Mandalorian
  • The Sopranos
  • The Vow
  • Schitt’s Creek
  • The Last Dance
  • Briarpatch
  • Narcos
  • High Fidelity

Four movies I saw for the first time that were totally worth the price of admission a streaming platform

  • Fargo (1996)
  • The Breadwinner (2017)
  • Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989)
  • Porco Rosso (1992)

Three video games I enjoyed getting lost in:

  • Assassin’s Creed Odyssey
  • Final Fantasy VII: Remastered
  • Path of Exile

Three podcasts that I filled the hours I spent walking this year:

While I mostly listen to singles, I found myself particularly listening to these albums in 2020:

  • “Harlem River Blues,” Justin Townes Earle (2010, RIP)
  • “Alone Together Sessions,” Hayes Carll (2020)
  • “New Miserable Experience,” Gin Blossoms (1992)
  • Tchaikovsky’s Symphonies

Find the past lists here: 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, and 2019.

My 2020: Best* Posts

It is time again for a series of posts that I use to reflect on the year that was. First up, I want to highlight some of my favorite posts to this point in the year. These are not necessarily the best or the best-trafficked, but rather things I wrote that I look back on fondly and think are worth revisiting.

For many reasons I did not write here as much as I have in the past (2020 marked the lowest number of total posts since 2011), but writing about non-academic books I’ve read bore the brunt of this change—whether because that writing felt frivolous or because I didn’t have anything to say when I finished a book. My more substantive output didn’t change all that much and the posts I did write were, on balance, longer than in past years. The result is one of the longest Best* posts wrap-up since I started doing this end of year series.

Previously: 2019; 2018; 2017; 2016

As in past years, I’ve written a bunch about teaching and writing in an academic context:

What Would I Write
Evidence, Please
Academic Style
Notes from Corona Campus
First Day Fragments: reflections on ZoomU 2.0

I also wrote a little bit about history and ancient history:

What Does It Mean to Learn From History
Bring Back Dokimasia
The Impossibility of Alexander
Thearion: The Paul Hollywood of Ancient Athens

One of my favorite pieces I wrote was about baking, in response to a sudden shortage of yeast after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic:

Help! I’m Out of Yeast!

Finally, I wrote two pieces about pop culture that I particularly like, an exceptionally silly review of the best books I read this year and a reflection on my connection to Star Wars written in response to The Rise of Skywalker:

Day of the Oprichnik
Star Wars and I

Publication Wrap 2020

I had a slow-ish publishing year in 2020, making this a second consecutive year of big plans and limited outcomes, but at least this year I had an excuse!

That is not to say that I didn’t have any progress; quite the opposite, in fact.

I had four short pieces come out this year. Two of these were book reviews:

  1. of Rosalind Thomas’ Polis Histories, which came out in CJ-Reviews online over the summer and was chosen to appear in the print version of the journal.
  2. of a recent translation of Jacqueline de Romilly’s Alcibiades, which came out in The New England Classical Journal this fall.

Two more were interview pieces:

  1. I talked about an inscription thanking immigrants to Athens for their service fighting against a tyrannical government in Athens for the Comfort Classics series run by Cora Beth Knowles.
  2. For the Society for Classical Studies blog I wrote about being a contingent faculty member in higher education and how the current situation is unsustainable.

I didn’t have any original research come out, but I did make headway on several projects. I effectively finished a chapter on the Athenian conquest of the island of Samos in 366 BCE for inclusion in a volume on the Athenian orators and their use of recent history and completed an article on fourth century Ephesus and its relationship to Alexander the Great for which I am looking for a home.

I also buried the lede to this post.

Back in October, I signed an advance contract with University of Michigan Press to publish a book tentatively titled Accustomed to Obedience?: Classical Ionia and the Aegean World, 480–294 BCE. This book is a heavily revised version of my dissertation so while I have quite a lot of work between now and when I’m supposed to submit the manuscript, let alone see the book come out, I am also very excited to have taken a very real step toward one of my professional ambitions.

For a full list of my publications, with links to everything available online, visit this page. If you are interested in reading any of my work and do not have access to it, please contact me.

Evidence, Please

I have said and written a number of dumb things over the years, but the worst statement of mine to appear in print came after the 2016 primary. I vote early in the morning and, if I remember correctly, voted on my way home from the gym at maybe 7 AM. On the way out, a journalist stopped me to ask for a comment. I growled something about my frustration with the “dangerous rhetoric” on both sides.

This milquetoast comment appeared in the paper the next day.

I stand by the first part of the statement, but regret qualifying it with “both sides.” The tenor of political advertising has reached the point that some of the races in Missouri feature virtually identical attack ads against each candidate, but in the aggregate there is no comparing the political rhetoric being put out by the two major political parties. Both sides use rhetoric; one side is actively undermining the legitimacy of the US government and stoking fear and hatred. And yet, in that moment, I contracted a case of bothsiderism that is rampant in political journalism.

Already as I drove away from the polling location I regretted what I had said. I had been thinking about Trump et al. when I said it and yet I not only softened my specific opinion but also suggested that this was a pervasive problem across the aisle. So why did I equivocate even though I have strong, clear political opinions?

It was early and I was asked for an opinion on the spot, but the explanation goes deeper.

In part, I don’t like painting with too broad a brush. I am not a fan of the Democratic Party as an institution and the nature of regional politics has sometimes resulted in Republican candidates in other parts of the country holding political opinions closer to my own than the Democratic candidates I have on my ballot. Similarly, I am seriously alarmed at the amount and types of money that gets spent in US politics, regardless of party, and am happy to give credit to the handful of Republican office holders more committed to taking the necessary steps during the pandemic than they are to playing partisan politics with it, even if I also think they are elsewhere complicit in enabling an administration run amock.

Just this weekend I read an article about how one of those Republican governors, Mike DeWine, was the target of a conspiracy to effect a citizen’s arrest because he listened to the scientists about public safety measures, making this at least the second plot after the conspiracy against Gretchen Whitmer in Michigan.

Another part, I think, was conditioned behavior. I was talking to a complete stranger who was looking for quotes that he could publish and I didn’t want to give him the sense that I had a bias. Is this not also the opinion I, a normal person, am supposed to have with the political elite—that is, sullen disenchantment with a system that largely doesn’t work for me? Certainly, that is what all of the political advertising around here is telling me.

The third part of this triptych is a learned behavior through years of teaching. It has been a right-wing talking point at least since the 1950s that higher education is filled with liberal professors determined to indoctrinate young people into whatever is the cause of the day. Professors often clap back that they need the students to do the reading before they can make any headway on the indoctrination program.

Jokes aside, a several of things seem to generally hold true:

Teaching is a political act. I make political decisions when determining what content we cover, what order we cover them, and what readings we use in class. In my classes we talk about issues like slavery, colonization, and wealth inequality (to name a few), but I usually moderate my political opinions order to focus on the evidence.

Some of this is practical. I’d rather not end up in a position where students send video of my class to a right-wing Facebook group, particularly while I’m working as a contingent faculty member on semester-by-semester contracts.

But some of this is also philosophical. I see my job as a professor as teaching students how to think historically and critically about the world around them. There are things I will not tolerate in my classroom: ad hominem attacks, for instance, or bigotry of any stripe, but these have nothing to do with whether the opinion being expressed is liberal or conservative (which, note, is not equivalent of Republican or Democratic).

“What is the evidence for this?” is one of the most common comments I make on papers, regardless of whether I agree or disagree with the politics of the opinion being expressed. In discussion when I ask questions, students often act like they’re repeating the rote answer they’re supposed to have learned at some point in their lives or that they’re looking for the answer that will please me and end the debate. Those answers get much more difficult when I follow up their statement with “why do you say that?” or “what evidence leads you to that conclusion?”

As I tell my students who often seem like they’re fishing for the specific answer that will please me, everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but that opinion must be grounded in evidence.

These days this isn’t easy. People are increasingly living in two different media ecosystems, neither of which offers a whole lot in the way of evidence, even if media typically decried as “liberal” does a somewhat better job. When opinion and anecdote substitute for substance, evidence loses out and the result is the sort of gulf in a recent poll between 92% of Democrats believing that African Americans face a lot of discrimination compared to 52% of Republicans who agree with the statement—when asked about whether white people face a lot of discrimination, 13% of Democrats agreed, while 57% of Republicans did. The gulf was similarly striking when asked questions about protests in the abstract versus when the question specifically mentioned African Americans.

Of course, opinion polls are exactly that: opinion. They do not require the respondent to offer evidence or reflect on where that opinion comes from. No one likes to be wrong and having your beliefs challenged is uncomfortable; there is comfort in media that confirms what you think you know about the world. (Un)fortunately, there is a whole smorgasbord of options with authoritative-sounding voices or names that will offer you talking points for whatever political position is! Some of them might even be based on evidence after a sort! Consuming these neatly-packaged bites is easy; learning to verify, confirm, and evaluate them is harder because it requires both effort and time.

Four years after I made my original comment, I remain concerned about tone of political rhetoric, but I now see that tone as inseparable from these other issues. This is a country where one imperfect party seems interest in governing for all Americans while the other seems largely interested in ruling for a few with many of their candidates denying science, trading in conspiracy theories, and interpreting the Constitution to suit their purposes regardless of what it actually says. Evidence exists only insofar as they are advantageous.

I recently characterized this political cycle as insulting to my intelligence exactly because of its aversion to evidence. Take Missouri’s Amendment 3. This measure marginally changes the rules about lobbyists, but is primarily an underhanded attempt to hand districting power back to the party in power and un-do a non-partisan measure that passed with 62% of the vote in 2018. Naturally, the advertising in favor of Amendment 3 is mostly scare-mongering about how the (new) regulations handed power to groups outside Missouri.

This past week I encouraged all of my students to vote. I still don’t see it as my place to preach a particular candidate or platform, but suggested that they look beyond the advertising, consider their own values, and learn about the candidates before deciding who to vote for. The most political statement I made was to suggest that they should be deeply suspicious of anyone who wants to make it harder for them to participate.

Encouraging people to vote is one thing; endorsing particular political platforms is another. Maybe I’m naive, and certainly I have some privileges that other professors don’t have, but I can’t do my job if I directly engage in politics in the classroom. I am just also keenly aware that I don’t want to repeat my mistake of four years ago of being so carefully moderated that I slip into the sort of misleading talking points not supported by the evidence.

My 2019: Resolutions

As is custom (starting last year), my year-end navel gazing series ends with my resolutions for the new year, a little delayed because my iPad keyboard died while I was on the road.

ΔΔΔ

The eternal, nebulous, unquantifiable

  • Continue learning to let go of things that are beyond my control. Most things are.
  • Be more patient and charitable.
  • Smile more often.
  • Exercise to improve health, diet, flexibility and fitness, particularly since my schedule last semester got in the way of these healthy routines.
  • Take more time for mindfulness exercises, something started off doing well in 2019 but had largely stopped by the end of the year and intend to do more regularly in 2020.

The specific, concrete, actionable

  • Take at least one day each weekend not working, as defined by no work email, no grading, no preparing for courses, and no academic writing.
  • Take ten minutes every afternoon for quiet meditation and reflection.
  • Complete the book manuscript that I’ve been working on based on my dissertation.
  • Complete the (2) article-length pieces that I didn’t quite finish in 2019 and draft (1) new one.
  • Find (1) new book to review.
  • Complete the next piece of my research project on bread in ancient Greece.
  • I have gotten away from reading academic books for reasons other than class or research, and I want to get back to reading for professional development. My target for this is at least (12), or one per month.
  • I didn’t quite hit my reading goal of 52 books for 2019, but will re-up at the same level
    • 33% of those books should be by women
    • At least (5) should be by African American authors
    • These books should represent at least (10) different countries and (7) different languages

ΔΔΔ

Finally, to conclude this series a message for readers: thank you for following along. I have some ideas of posts coming down the pipe in 2020, including a revised list of my favorite novels, but, as usual, content here will reflect my year, what I have the energy to write about, and the fickle fortune of pursuing an academic career.

Whatever I write, I hope you’ll join me. In the meantime, may the coming year be one of warmth and joy for you as we all work to build a better future.

Recapping My 2019: best* posts; by-the-numbers; listicle; using words.