May Reading List and an update on my 2022 reading goal

Back in January I set out a goal to read one article every working day that was not explicitly linked to my research. The idea was that my academic reading had become too narrowly focused on books and thus that I was missing out on some of the richness of the field.

One article shouldn’t be too onerous, I thought. And yet, I found even one article increasingly unmanageable as the semester wore on, particularly when many of the articles that looked interesting (how I tended to choose what to read) were forty or more pages long—or, in some cases, required ILL requests to access them.

I had hoped that my energy for this project would return with the end of the semester, but the reality is that the start of my summer has been characterized by an all-consuming combination of busyness and torpor brought on by the exhaustion of the semester. The five articles I read in May (listed below) turned out to be the last gasps of my semester routine. While I have made good a good start on other reading goals, I have yet to read a single article in June.

In the spirit of doing less, along with a number of more pressing tasks on my to-do list, I am putting this project on hold for the remainder of this summer and will revisit it in the new semester. In the meantime, I’ll keep tracking what I read and consider anything from this summer bonus.

The May List

  • Scott Lawin Arcenas. “The Silence of Thucydides.” TAPA 150 (2020): 299–332.
  • Mira Green. “Butcher Blocks, Vegetable Stands, and Home-Cooked Food: Resisting Gender and Class Constructions in the Roman World.” Arethusa 52, no. 2 (2020): 115–32.
  • Alexandra Bartzoka. “The Vocabulary and Moments of Change: Thucydides and Isocrates on the Rise and Fall of Athens and Sparta.” Pnyx 1, no. 1 (2022): 1–26.
  • David Morassi. “War Mandates in the Peloponnesian War: The Agency of Athenian Strategoi.” GRBS 62, no. 1 (2022): 1–17.
  • Morgan E. Palmer. “Time and Eternity: The Vestal Virgins and the Crisis of the Third Century.” TAPA 150 (2020): 473–97.

Thinking Through Course Design

On my ever-growing to-do list for this summer is thinking through the design of three new (to me) classes for next year. The most imminent—an interdisciplinary seminar on food and drink in the ancient mediterranean that I’m offering in the fall—is, ironically the one I am least worried about of the three. Its proximity means that I have already given the course a decent amount of thought, have already ordered a course reader, and have a good sense of the outcomes I am expecting the students to come away with.

I am having more trouble envisioning these same features of the upper-level survey courses on Rome and ancient Persia set to run in the spring semester—for not entirely dissimilar reasons.

By its next iteration, my Archaic and Classical Greek History course will likely reach a rough equilibrium that takes students through three interlocking units. The first one will deal with an introduction to Ancient Greece, its place in the mediterranean world, and social and political institutions down to roughly 500; the second unit engages with war, empire, and imperial culture down to roughly 404, and then the third unit takes a thematic approach to society and culture, with a focus on the fourth century (300s) down to the foundation of the Hellenistic World.

No course of this sort can take a truly catholic approach to a society, but I have made deliberate choices in this course to generally eschew a blow-by-blow recounting of events like the Peloponnesian in favor of leading students through a sequence that gives them a broad understanding of major issues in Greek history. However, what made this most possible was limiting the chronology of the course to a totally manageable 500 years.

By contrast, my Roman history course is going to cover a minimum of 1,000—and maybe more. I am also the sole ancient historian in a small department and responsible for teaching a number of other courses means that I can’t divide “Roman History” into a two or three semester sequence.

And yet, despite these issues, the Roman history course is the less troublesome of the two. I know the mandate, the broad arc, and a lot of the resources that I can use. I am also brushing up on scholarship and have several syllabus models that I think will work for what I envision.

I am facing more foundational issues in coming to my Persian history course. When I first imagined teaching such a course, I envisioned a deep-dive into Achaemenid Persia as a counterpoint to my Greek history course. It would start with the regal traditions of Western Asia, tackle dynastic and institutional issues, explore the historiographical issues of the many topics that are filtered through a Greek lens, and engage with the diverse cultures that flourished under Persia before culminating with the sticky issues of Alexander’s conquest. I even had the core textbook picked out, Maria Brosius’ A History of Ancient Persia: The Achaemenid Empire.

I absolutely course teach the course this way. There is more than enough material to fill a full semester, and I left the course description flexible for a reason.

However, I also course teach the course across three units, each covering a different ancient Persia—Achaemenid, Asakid Parthian, and Sasanian. Doing the course this way would cut into the amount of time that could be given over to the study, replacing them instead with themes of continuities, historical memory, and the diverse subject populations.

While I have a gut feeling that the latter approach would better fit in the cycle of courses that I teach, I also have some misgivings.

First, it would require significantly more preparation on my part simply by dint of my being less familiar with these empires than Achaemenid Persia. This is, of course, not a deal-breaker, and I have begun collecting resources in case this is the direction I end up going. My reading list as it currently stands can be found below, though I will need to supplement it with edited collections as well.

Second, while there are good options for books to use for Achaemenid history or Sasanian history (and, to a lesser extent Parthian history), there are to my knowledge no good options for resources that cover all three. Thus, a course of this model taught by Touraj Daryaee, whose history of the Sasanian Empire is an early leader for one that I might use, requires students to purchase four books—Ferdowsi’s Shahnehmah, histories of the Achaemenid and Sasanian empires, and a book of sources on Zoroastrianism—and compresses the Parthian empire into one week out of ten, just after the midterm exam.

My concern is that I am extremely sensitive to the price of my courses, almost to a fault. I can point out multiple occasions where I opted to assign an open-access version of a resource that I did not particularly like rather than ask my students to purchase yet another book and generally not assigning complete monographs in order to keep the cost of my course to roughly $50 dollars worth of materials. I was reminded by colleagues that textbooks in STEM routinely run into the hundreds of dollars, so I should not feel guilty if my courses occasionally creep north of $100 as this one is threatening to do, but I still find myself wrestling with these decisions.

I have a little bit of time, at least, and all of these are reasons to be working on course planning so far in advance. Both of these syllabuses will be ongoing projects this summer, so I welcome suggestions or recommendations.

An Ancient Persia Reading List (post Achaemenid)

  • Matthew Canepa, The Two Eyes of the Earth (California 2009)
  • Uwe Ellerbrock, The Parthians (Routledge 2021)
  • Parvaneh Pourshariati (ed.) Decline and Fall of the Sasanian Empire (I.B. Tauris 2008)
  • M. Rahim Sheyegan, Aspects of History and Epic in Ancient Iran (Harvard 2012)
  • M. Rahim Sheyegan, Arsacids and Sasanians (Cambridge 2011)
  • Touraj Daryaee, Sasanian Iran 224–651 CE: Portrait of a Late Antique Empire (Mazda 2008)
  • Touraj Daryaee, Sasanian Persia: The Rise and Fall of an Empire (I.B. Tauris, 2009)
  • Sauer Eberhard (ed.), Sasanian Persia: Between Rome and the Steppes and Eurasia (University Press, 2017)
  • Marek Jan Olbrycht, Early Arsakid Parthia (Brill 2021)
  • Vesta Sakhosh Curtis, Michael Alram, Touraj Daryaee (edd.), The Parthian and Early Sasanian Empires (Oxbow 2016)

March Reading List

Back in January I laid out an ambitious reading goal for 2022: one article per working day, and resolved to write a wrap-up monthly recap post for accountability. March proved a challenge for a whole host of reasons so the total is much lower than I would have liked. April is looking worse, if anything, but I’m hopeful that I can get back on track over the next week.

Without further ado here is the list, divided once more into my favorite articles (honorable mentions) and the rest of the list.

Honorable Mentions

  • Sofie Remijsen, “Only Greeks at the Olympics? Reconsidering the rule against non-Greeks at ‘Panhellenic’ Games,” C&M 67 (2019): 1–61.

The rest of the list

  • Marcaline J. Boyd, “Sleeping with the Tyrant: Thebe the Tyrannicide and the Death of Alexander of Pherae in Plutarch’s Pelopidas,” Histos 15 (2021): 131–49.
  • Peter A. O’Connell, “How Often Did the Athenian Dikasteria Meet? A Reconsideration,” GRBS 60, no. 3 (2020): 324–41.
  • Piotr Głogowski, “Cyrus the Younger and his Persians: the dynamics of power,” GRBS 60, no. 2 (2020): 165–91.
  • Elizabeth Carney, “Royal Macedonian Widows: Merry and Not,” GRBS 59 (2019): 368–96.
  • Sarah Morris and John Papadopoulos, “Of Granaries and Games: Egyptian Stowaways in an Athenian Chest,” Hesperia Supplements 33 (2004): 225–42.
  • Loren J. Samons II, “Herodotus on the Kimonids: Peisistratid Allies in Sixth-Century Athens,” Historia 66, no. 1 (2017): 21–44.
  • Anastasios Nikolaidis, “Revisiting the Pylos Episode and Thucydides’ ‘Bias’ Against Cleon,” C&M 69 (2021): 121–50.
  • Cinzia Bearzot, “Political Murder in Classical Greece,” Ancient Society 47 (2007): 37–61.
  • Timothy Sorg, “Agyrrhios Beyond Attica: Tax-Farming and Imperial Recovering in the Second Athenian League,” Historia 64, no. 1 (2015): 49–76.
  • Joshua D. Sosin, “Ransom at Athens ([Dem.] 53.11),” Historia 66, no. 2 (2017): 130–46.
  • Etka Liebowitz, “Female Monarchal Succession in Hellenistic and Jewish Society in Antiquity: Parallels and Contrasts,” Journal for the Study of Judaism 49, no. 1 (2018), 30–48.

Previous Months

January, February

February Reading List

Back in January I set an ambitious reading goal for 2022, one article read per working day, and resolved to do a monthly wrap-up for accountability. I am generally happy with the returns even though some busyness in my schedule at the end of February caused me to fall a little bit short this month as well.

Without further ado, here is the list and a handful of honorable mentions for the favorite things I read.

Honorable Mentions

  • David Lewis, “Near Eastern Slaves in Classical Attica and the Slave Trade with Persian Territories,” Classical Quarterly 61 (2011): 91–113
  • James Roy, “The Son of Pharnabazos and Parapita, A Persian Competing in the Olympic Games: Xenophon Hellenica 4.1.39–40,” Classica et Mediaevalia 68 (2020): 119–34
  • Dominique Lenfant, “Eunuchs as the Guardians of Women: Orientalism and Back Projection in Modern Scholarship,” Greek Roman and Byzantine Studies 61 (2021): 456–74

The List

  • Anna Novokhatko, “The Wetted Sponge, the Wretched Rho, and other Greek evidence for Scribal Work,” Glotta 96 (2020): 148–73
  • V.L. Konstantinopoulos, “The Persian Wars and Political Conflicts in Athens,” British Institute of Classical Studies 124 (2013), 63–5
  • Rachel Bruzzone, “Killing the Past in Thucydides’ Plataean Debate,” Classical Philology 110 (2015): 289–300
  • Andrew G. Scott, “Spartan courage and the social function of Plutarch’s Lacaonian apophthegms,” Museum Helveticum 74, no. 1 (2017): 34–53
  • Andrew T. Alwine, “Freedom and Patronage in Athenian Democracy,” Journal of Hellenic Studies 136 (2016): 1–17
  • Christina Skelton, “Greek-Anatolian Language Contact and the Settlement of Pamphylia,” Classical Antiquity 36, no. 1 (2017): 104–29
  • Garrett Ryan, “Building Order,” Classical Antiquity 37, no. 1 (2018): 151–85
  • John O. Hyland, “Contesting Marathon: Billows Krentz, and the Persian Problem,” Classical Philology 106, no. 3 (2011): 265–77 (review article)
  • Richard Rawles, “Lysimeleia (Thucydides 7.52, Theocritus 16.84): What Thucydides Does not Tell us about the Sicilian Expedition,” Journal of Hellenic Studies 135 (2015): 132–46
  • Christian Mann, “Campaign Agones: Towards a Classification of Grek Athletic Competitions,
    Classica et Mediaevalia 68 (2020): 99–117
  • Mait Kõiv, “Greek Rulers and Imperial Powers in Western Anatolia (8th–6th Centuries BC),” Studia Antiqua et Archaeologica 27, no. 2 (2021): 357–72
  • Aynur-Michele-Sara Karatas, “Greek Cults and Their Sacred Laws on Dress Codes,” Classical World 113, no. 2 (2020): 147–70
  • Krzysztof Nawotka, “Seleukos I and the Origin of the Seleukid Dynastic Image,
    Scripta Classical Israelica 36 (2017): 31–43
  • Marloes Deene, “Naturalized Citizens and Social Mobility in Classical Athens: the case of Apollodorus,” Greece and Rome 58, no. 2 (2011): 159–75
  • Benjamin M. Sullivan, “In the Shadow of Phoenicia: North Syria and “Palestinian Syria” in Herodotus,” Journal of Hellenic Studies 138 (2018): 67–79

Previous Months

January

Tenure, contingency, and academic speech, a maunder

A collection of thoughts from my friend Ellie Mackin Roberts caught my attention this morning scrolling through Twitter (not linked because she mentioned she might delete the thread). The higher ed union in the UK is currently on strike over pensions and EMR was reflecting on why she was having a hard time engaging with this strike despite being pro-union. The thrust of the thread was that her position as an hourly employee meant a) that she couldn’t afford to strike; b) that this employment and caring responsibilities largely cuts her off from full time positions, despite being an accomplished and published researcher; and c) that the full time faculty who benefit most from an improved pension scheme have, historically, not shown the same enthusiasm in fighting for pay equity for contingent faculty.

There is a vast gulf between the United Kingdom and United States on issues of organized labor, but the thread nevertheless struck a chord in terms of my evolving attitude toward tenure.

I am not now, nor have I ever been a tenured professor.

In fact, this year, my fifth out from receiving my PhD is the first that I had a full-year, full-time contract at one institution. I like my current job and would like to keep it as long as possible, but, frankly, I have all-but given up on hoping that I will ever win a tenure-track position based simply on how few of these positions come open each year. I will apply when I see good opportunities, of course, I’m just not holding my breath.

Perhaps because of this background, I am of two minds when it comes to the discourse around tenure. On the one hand, I have friends and colleagues who are tenured or tenure-track professors and attacks on tenure in Georgia, Texas, and elsewhere materially affect their jobs. On the other, the tenure system perpetuates a bifurcated system of compensation even though people at different ranks are largely doing the same job, particularly in the humanities.

(This is not just a matter of research expectations, either. People are different ranks will receive different per-course rates.)

The standard line about tenure is that it is an essential protection for free academic discourse. There is a kernel of truth here: tenure makes it more difficult to fire someone for teaching or publishing on potentially controversial issues. But I also find that defense rings hollow in a world where an ever-increasing percentage of the teaching is being done by people on annual, or even semester-by-semester, contracts. In a perfect world the solution would be to dramatically increase the number of tenured and tenure-track positions, but I have been hearing the same thing since I entered graduate school more than a decade ago and those positions only continued to disappear, even before Scott Walker kicked off the current wave of attacks on public institutions in 2015.

Faculty working conditions are student learning conditions, and contingent contracts impose challenges to sustaining departments and disciplines, for all sorts of reasons. Students can’t expect to develop relationships with their teachers, contingent faculty spend more time applying for jobs which cuts into the available time for teaching and research, and the looming threat of non-renewal shapes how faculty teach in all sorts of ways, from how to tackle controversial issues to what risks they take in offering creative and innovative pedagogy.

This is why I get frustrated when I see outlets like Lawyers, Guns, and Money respond to a speech where Dan Patrick, the Lieutenant Governor of Texas, proposes ending tenure in public universities by commenting that tenure will cease to exist in Red States in the coming years. This observation is clearly true and has been for a while, but Patrick’s proposal is a means to an end, part of a sustained attack on education and academic discourse divorced from the reality of what happens in a classroom and designed to teach a carefully curated vision of the world. While tenured faculty have long been a target of these efforts, they also represent a declining percentage of the overall faculty population.

My point is not to that we should strip anyone of tenure or the protections it affords, but that treating tenure as synonymous with free academic discourse seems to be asking a lot of people doing this work to defend a system that does not afford them the same protections. Should this not be reason fight for improved conditions of employment for contingent faculty and to insulate them the pressures of this current culture war? If nothing else, it might cushion the landing when politicians like Patrick succeed in destroying the current system.

Publishing While Contingent

Earlier this month at the annual SCS meeting I attended a roundtable on the future of academic publishing. The conversation ranged widely, from the relative lack of opportunities to receive comments on written work before it is published to discipline-specific series adjusting to meet interdisciplinary work to the need both to teach reviewers how to give useful reviews and teach young academics how to receive feedback productively.

I found the discussion stimulating. But I also kept coming back to what I thought was an elephant in the room.

The panelists had brought contingent faculty up in passing, talking about the systems for compensating the unpaid labor of reviewing that goes into academic publishing. Most journals simply don’t have the money to pay reviewers and one of the challenges facing the field at the moment is the diminishing pool of people who can provide feedback. The panelists were (rightly) wary of exploiting junior colleagues with limited resources by asking them to commit large amounts of time for which they cannot be paid. I appreciated this sentiment, but I was also thinking about how simply excluding this potential pool of reviewers also creates a two-tiered system that requires more and more out of a smaller and smaller set of people while leaving other people outside of potential opportunities that could be found by this sort of networking.

Now, reviewing is not a silver bullet. To this point in my career, I have had one opportunity to review a manuscript (I was paid a small sum to review a book manuscript for a book being rereleased and is due out this summer) and it did not magically open any doors for me. Rather, in this context, reviewing seemed to me to be a microcosm of a larger issue where if people in editorial positions (here I was particularly thinking of scholars who edit journals) routinely don’t incorporate people in contingent positions into these processes and networks of academic publishing even out of reasonable concerns over unpaid labor, will this in time lead to a comparable shrinkage of people who are offered opportunities to participate in edited volumes, curated collections, and the like?

I don’t have an answer. Asking for labor from people who receive no tangible benefit for doing it isn’t the answer, but neither is simply cutting them out of the process.

In truth, very few scholars intend to stay contingent. There are scholars who publish brilliant work while working outside of academia and there are those in secure positions. Being between those two poles is a temporary limbo with few of the opportunities of either—except that the current state of higher education has turned it into the new normal, and you can’t publish your way out of that. To my mind, this makes it even more imperative to at least invite contingent faculty members into these systems of academic publishing. Many might decline the invitation, but choosing not even to extend it simply reifies the divide between the haves and the have-nots.

Part of the solution, I think, has to be advocating for improved working conditions for all faculty. Not only would this add to the pool of people who would be able to contribute to these forms of academic labor, but it could also help open space for different types of academic writing since there is some truth to the idea that contingency offers a perverse freedom to one’s writing since you are not judged on the same standards and schedules as tenure-line faculty.

(I have maundered a bit on this topic in the past, most notably when considering what I would write if I stopped pursuing academic employment.)

I have been thinking about this panel again recently while working on the preface for my first book. A preface is supposed to tell the story of the book and offer some reflection on those people and institutions who helped you create the finished product. I have always had a strange affection for prefaces and usually at least skim them because this is where the formal academic tone drops and the person comes through, at least to an extent. I had fun with the acknowledgements and bio for my dissertation, mostly because nobody told me that I couldn’t, but I am finding this part of the book harder to write.

Many first books follow a common template in their acknowledgements:

This is a revised version of my dissertation. Revisions began at X post-doctoral fellowship [or visiting assistant professorship] and completed with the generous support of Y current, full time job that awarded me a research leave and paid for travel, etc, etc.

Not all of these steps are equal, of course. Most post-doctoral positions offer more support than most VAPs, but it is easy to thank either of them when they were a stepping-stone to a tenure-line position.

I am extremely grateful for the support of my colleagues at my current job, but an unvarnished recounting of the conditions that birthed this book would be quite a bit different. Revisions started during two years of a half-time position (no benefits) that provided a standard amount of research funding for the department that was enough to go to a conference each year, but too little for a major research trip and with too little pay to do much more than survive. Plenty of time to write and access to a library, but not much else. They continued during a year of cobbling together employment from different sources, teaching five or six courses at a time (no benefits, no research funds, little time to write). Then during the pandemic, which left me temporarily unemployed, followed by a semester where I taught five classes (four entirely new preps) at three institutions and another semester of four classes at two institutions (no research funds, limited library access, benefits from my partner’s job).

I also found a lot of this employment isolating in the sense that I was often teaching far outside my field and without colleagues in any meaningful sense. The internet helps bridge some of the geographic distance, of course, but it cannot replace physical contact, particularly when you are starting from the outside. Of course, I am hardly the first person to face this challenge. In the preface to his Conquest and Empire (1988), the historian Brian Bosworth wrote:

My obligations are few and many…I have been forced to work in geographical isolation, and my physical contacts with other scholars have been confined to brief periods of leave. That means that my writing is perhaps more personally oriented than it might have been, and I cannot make acknowledgements of direct assistance.

He then goes on to name a series of eminent historians who influenced his thinking and thanks his institution for their support.

I don’t want to put any of my past employers on blast. I took the one course from a local community college, for instance, because I thought that it might help land a full-time job teaching at a community college down the line, not because I expected that it would help me finish my book. At the same time, it has not been an easy road to get to this place. I did it because I wanted to write this book and I am proud of the work I have done, but I would be lying if I said it wouldn’t have been easier with more time and resources.

I am finding this a difficult thing to balance. I have people I want and need to thank, but I also don’t want to white-wash the experience of writing this book with some trite pablum about my tenuous academic employment. A discussion like this might lack for social grace, but at least it would be honest.

Hypothetically Speaking: a Greek History class reading list

This post has been updated and archived here.

One of my favorite things about my current job is that, despite being a contingent position, it has given me license to start thinking about the types of courses I might want to teach and provided a framework in which to conceive of them. As last semester wore down I started to mull over what I would assign for an 8-week summer graduate course on Greek history.

(An actual course would probably have to be “ancient history” or somesuch, more broadly construed, but indulge me here.)

The imagined audience for this course is aspiring history teachers with little or no background in the classical languages. My goal was to construct a reading list that a) gives a glimpse at some of what I see as core issues to Greek history as they emerge in recent scholarship, b) challenges traditional narratives about Greek history, and c) avoids leaning too hard on literary or linguistic analysis.

This is the reading list I came up with:

  • Johanna Hanink, The Classical Debt (Harvard: 2017)
  • Naoise Mac Sweeny, Foundation Myths and Politics in Ancient Ionia (Cambridge: 2013)
  • Stephen Hodkinson, Property and Wealth in Classical Sparta (Duckworth: 2000)
  • David Yates, States of Memory (Oxford: 2019)
  • Rebecca Futo Kennedy, Immigrant Women in Athens (Routledge: 2014)
  • Kostas Vlassopoulos, Greeks and Barbarians (Cambridge: 2013)
  • John Hyland, Persian Interventions (Johns Hopkins: 2017)
  • Paul Kosmin, The Land of the Elephant Kings (Harvard: 2014)

I particularly wanted to avoid any book that used as its focus one of the big wars in Greek history because those books abound, though I did consider Jenny Robert’s The Plague of War (Oxford: 2017), and, I was likewise leery of any book that too completely centered Athens, though Joan Connelly’s The Parthenon Enigma (Penguin: 2014). Rather, I wanted to steer into persistent misunderstandings about Ancient Greece, giving the (imagined) students material that they were likely going to be unfamiliar with and that they might be able to use in how they teach the subject. This meant books that situated events they might see elsewhere in a broader context or inverted what they might have learned elsewhere.

Two issues with this list as currently constructed:

First. Kosmin’s volume feels to me like a token Hellenistic book that might be better to given over to something like Clara Bosak-Schroeder’s Other Natures (University of California Press: 2020) or another book on historiography. I ultimately excluded Other Natures just because I haven’t had a chance to read it yet.

Second. Slavery appears in these volumes as a secondary consideration rather than as the primary focus. Given the prominence of slavery in Greek society this might be a grave oversight.

Finally, a request. Tell me why any of my choices won’t work and, in the sense that I am always looking for bibliography, tell me what I missed.

Fall 2021: The Uncanny Valley of Normalcy

As I read a flood of headlines about schools going online in response to the latest COVID-19 spikes, I am finding it hard to imagine what it was like back in August when we returned for a fall semester masked, but back at full capacity and in person and all of the talk on campus was when, not if, the mask mandate would get dropped.

Now it is late December and I am sitting in my office trying to plan for a new semester that starts in less than three weeks without any sense of what it will look like and without having had a chance yet to process the semester that just ended.

Perhaps a nap would be a more productive use of my time.

More than any semester I can remember, I spent a lot of time and emotional energy trying to coach, support, and otherwise help struggling students through a very difficult term. Some of this can be traced to my new position at a new school that allowed me to invest in this sort work and a campus climate that made it more necessary. Yet, anecdotally, I also saw sentiments that this semester was harder than the ones that were more explicitly pandemic semesters. There are a variety of possible explanations—those other semesters came with more explicit planning and everyone’s mental and emotional reserves are empty after two years of a pandemic—but one that I particularly like came from Kevin Gannon on Twitter who speculated that this semester was the Uncanny Valley of Normalcy. That is, we were close to normal in a way that only highlighted that something was off.

After a lot of debate, I set up my courses so that students could use Zoom to attend remotely if they asked me for the link. I suggested they use chat to contribute to the class conversation, but also warned them that I might not be able to bring them fully into the course discussion. I am not happy with this solution, but after trying to teach language classes in a hybrid format last year I decided that this was just a battle I didn’t have the energy to fight. I still want to imagine something better but keep drawing a blank.

Other challenges I faced this semester come back to it being my first year in a new department. For instance, I came in with certain assumptions about the demographics of my upper-level course and then had to adjust on the fly to meet my students where they were. Going into next semester, I can have these adjustments built into the course from the start. Similarly, I came into the semester thinking that the my World Civ course (world history for non-majors) would be an iteration of a world history course I had taught before, but then found myself adjusting mid-stream when I saw the virtues of some of what the World History course did, before adjusting again when it became clear to me how many of my students were wearing down at a frightening rate. I suspect having a more regular assignment schedule will help this class immensely, and this is something that will be easier to accomplish now that I have a better sense of the students, campus community, and resources at my disposal.

This semester has also been causing me to reflect on three aspects of my teaching.

First, I like most of my class sessions, and, by extension, the course as a whole to have a big idea and an arc that allows each idea to reinforce what the students are learning. When I taught my monsters class, for instance, we go from primordial monsters, the interaction between monsters and humans, and finally asking whether human beings are the “real monsters.” In other classes, I often use a sort of ring composition that has the course return to the ideas we established at the outset of the semester at the very end. This method, along with a strong emphasis on reflection in the courses, allows the students to see what they have learned that semester and I have no intention of fully abandoning that model, but I am wondering if I wouldn’t be better to build in more compartmentalization.

Take this analogy. I often often have students go through drafting processes and peer review by way of scaffolding writing assignments. This semester when I tried a peer-review exercise in one of my classes, only half of the class had a draft for their peers to review. Now, I am going to change how I do these peer reviews in the future by requiring students to submit the drafts as a “graded” (complete/incomplete) assignment, but I also saw this as symptomatic of how many students were simply overwhelmed this semester. I had multiple students miss long stretches of class time where they seemed even more lost when they return, so I wonder if there might be virtue in finding ways to build in water-tight compartments so that if one ruptures the whole boat doesn’t sink, so to speak. Not that compartmentalization helps with any given writing assignment, though.

Sorry, mixed metaphor is where my head is at right now.

Second, I am once again questioning the value of tests. Not assessment, mind you, but tests. When I finished working as a TA for big US history surveys, I vowed I would never again offer a blue-book test. Basically, I think they are of negligible pedagogical value for what I hope to teach my students and I find in-class exams mind-numbing to grade. I have exclusively used open-book take-home tests in my classes where part of the assignment is learning how to synthesize and cite information from the various sources that we have used.

Some of these tests have worked better than others, and I am starting to think that a take-home test needs to do more than replicate the in-class test at home. That is, if you are doing a take-home test, it shouldn’t be a series of short answer terms followed by several essays. Some students do exceptionally well at these assignments, but others replicate many of the same issues I have with the in-class exams while the large number of individual components to the test often leads to divided focus. I have had more success with exams that ask fewer questions, expect more from each answer, and allow revision.

However, if I am going to take this approach, what is the virtue in doing one midterm and one final with two questions each rather than, say asking those same questions over three or four papers that go through a peer-review process? In this model, much learning ostensibly tested by the short answer portion of those exams would be done through weekly quizzes over factual materials and readings. Not every course needs to be writing-intensive, but this can be accounted for in the length of the assignments, while doing more frequent but shorter assignments that go through this process would likely result in deeper, more sustained engagement with the course material than the alternative.

Finally, the end of this semester has me again reflecting on compassionate pedagogy. I want to be the sort of professor who my students trust to support them. Right now this means finding ways to make my course policies flexible and respecting the demands put on their time. I don’t have access to my course evals for the semester yet, but I am particularly looking forward to seeing what they thought of my late policy that treated all major assignments as checkpoints and allowed them to get an automatic extension by filling out a Google form before that checkpoint. In particular, I wonder what messaging a policy like this gives. A lot of students wrote that they were taking my extension because they had other work due the same day. That in and of itself isn’t a problem—I understand students have other classes and this extension is on offer—but when I scaled back a number of assignments late in the semester because I saw my students becoming utterly overwhelmed, the break I gave them was immediately swallowed by work for other classes. Put the two together, and I can’t help but wonder if building flexibility and compassion into my course as a baseline gets taken for granted and sends the message that what I’m teaching them is not important.

I don’t intend to go away from a compassionate pedagogy because I don’t see rigor and rigidity as synonymous, but it does underscore for me that individual instructors cannot solve problems like the mental health crises on college campuses. We need structural solutions.

A Premature Return to Normal and In-Person Conferences

Last week I attended my first in-person conference since January 2020 when I attended the AIA-SCS annual meeting in Washington DC.

It was a surreal experience.

On Wednesday afternoon after I finished teaching for the day, I hopped in the car and drove to Eau Claire, Wisconsin to attend a regional history conference where I would be chairing one panel and presenting on another. Both the venue and the conference acknowledged the ongoing pandemic with signs requesting or requiring masks (depending on where one was at a given time) and seats conspicuously distributed about six feet apart around the presentation spaces. Most people abided by the mask guidelines, as far as I could tell, but this only served to make me more frustrated with those who weren’t whether or not they had the pretense of food or drink nearby.

How much I like in-person conferences under normal circumstances depends a lot on my headspace. I get quite nervous about public speaking and go through frequent bouts of imposter syndrome, but I also find these events invigorating. For every time I have stood awkwardly at a reception, I have made two friends by putting aside my hangups and just gotten into a conversation. After all, the attendees are (generally) there to make new contacts. Likewise, I am now at a place in my career where I can pull aside graduate students after a talk to give them positive reinforcement and suggestions much as was given to me a decade ago.

I have loved the accessibility that accompanied the pivot online during the pandemic, but there is a tradeoff. I have attended more conference than usual, as well as workshops hosted out of Winnipeg, Rio de Janeiro, Oxford, Chicago, Oregon, and Athens (to name just a few), but I have not found the virtual experience nearly as conducive to networking, at least as someone who was not already connected to the host networks.

In this respect, I found myself glad to be back at a brick-and-mortar conference where there could be fortuitous encounters in line at the coffee shop or where I could grab dinner with conference attendees (on a patio).

By the same token, the decision to make this an in-person conference led to a significant amount of chaos. Many people—myself included—had applied to the conference with the understanding that it would be held virtually. When this turned out not to be the case, I was fortunately still able to attend, but many attendees required virtual accommodations. To their credit, the conference organizers did provide a Zoom option for these attendees, but we were still working out how this would work the day before the conference started. The format made it easier for people to present more easily than to watch papers online, but when it worked things went smoothly enough. However, this time crunch put the onus on panel chairs (rather than tech volunteers) to manage the Zoom feed, so when it went poorly things went haywire, whether because the organizer and panel chair couldn’t reach a presenter (who likely sent a pre-recorded talk that went unnoticed) or because a nervous presenter closed out a Zoom room and no-one noticed until it was too late to bring the attendees back.

The reality is that we are still in the middle of an ongoing public health crisis. I was willing take the risks of exposure because I am fully vaccinated (still <6 months since my second dose) and could afford to take many precautions in how I travelled. Still, if we are going back to meatspace in-person conferences, I think that they will have to include a hybrid or virtual option for the foreseeable future.

If anything, this experience reminded me that saying there will be a virtual option is one thing, but executing it is something else entirely. Suffice it to say that I am even more pleased that the AIA-SCS has been planning a virtual event for months already even though the conference is in January.

I enjoy the ritual of setting aside my daily routine for time spent engaging with colleagues. This time I just also spent this conference thinking about how this was all premature. Wishful thinking won’t make the pandemic go away. I understand the desire to win back some of what has been lost over the past year and a half, particularly if most attendees are already vaccinated, but it is too soon to return to the pre-pandemic status quo, if that should even be the goal.

First Day Fragments 2021: A Fresh Start

Each of the past three years I have written a post celebrating the start of the fall semester with quick hits on various topics that I’m mulling over going into the new academic year. You can find the earlier posts in the archive: 2020, 2019, 2018.

One recent addition to my podcast lineup is Self-Compassionate Professor hosted by Dr. Danielle De La Mare. The podcast as a whole is aimed a little bit over my head (I’m neither a mid-career nor a recovering academic yet) and I am somewhat ambivalent about the emphasis on entrepreneurialism, which often leans toward career coaching. But I like listening to people talk about how they navigated their academic careers, if only because that is something I’m just starting to do.

The recent episode with Brandy Simula was particularly good.

Dr. Simula talked at length about pandemic burnout and suggested that professors identify what tasks need to be done at 100%, which ones can be done at 70%, and which ones can be let go. I was already feeling exhaustion tug at the corners of my awareness when I listened to this episode, but I also know that my students are living through the same world events at an even more tumultuous time in their lives.

A useful reminder going into this semester.

ΔΔΔ

I have spent a lot of time going back and forth about what I want to do for pandemic contingencies this semester and how much I need to front-load that information in my syllabuses. I am working at a university that made it through last year without interruption, is requiring masks when indoors, and has a good rate of vaccination, but the Delta variant is all-but guaranteed to take some students out of class this semester. Right now I am encouraging students who are experiencing symptoms or who have tested positive to remain out of class and will offer alternate assessments for them to make up what they have missed.

Zoom is a wonderful tool for some purposes and I am looking to offer virtual options for office hours, but trying to teach students in the classroom and on Zoom simultaneously was so exhausting last year that I would like to avoid a repeat of that experience if at all possible.

ΔΔΔ

On a recent road trip I found myself working through the archive of the Fake Doctors, Real Friends podcast. In one episode, Zach Braff dropped a line attributed to the eminent screenwriter Lawrence Kazdan:

Being a writer is like having homework every night for the rest of your life.

This is a catchy aphorism, though I couldn’t find a source in a few minutes of poking around online. I think its spirit is correct — writing often gets done on top of other employment because writing alone won’t pay the bills, for one thing, but writing also involves hours spent thinking about writing and deadlines that superficially resemble school. But I also think that comparing writing to homework trivializes writing in some ways. Writing is work, full stop. The fact that it takes place at home and sometimes off-hours doesn’t change that.

I am a little bit behind on my work right now, but I’m hoping that the structure of a semester will help motivate me to sit down at the computer and plug away at my projects. This is work that I want to do, I just don’t like the implication of calling it homework. Then again, what I really need to be more disciplined about is reading.

ΔΔΔ

I am officially one week into my new position at Truman State University — a full-time non-tenure-track position teaching world and ancient history. The result is that today has a little bit more than the usual first-day jitters.

So far, the students are enthusiastic and I like my colleagues, but, selfishly, I am most looking forward to having all of my classes at one institution that is invested in me as a teacher. This is a welcome change after several years of hustling for classes at a bunch of different institutions all of which made their decisions on different timelines.

These are all good changes and I am thrilled to be here. I am just also still in a little bit of disbelief and for this year at least feeling a measure of survivor’s guilt.

ΔΔΔ

I’m not as prepared for this semester as I would like to be, but I am looking forward to it quite a lot. For now, that will have to be enough.