Week four of the semester passed in a blur this week. At the risk of projecting my mental state onto my students, I think many of my students felt similarly, as evidenced by some struggles by the end of the week.
I started paying attention to the ebbs and flows of energy levels of the semester years ago as a TA at Mizzou where we routinely went from Labor Day to Thanksgiving Break (sometimes twelve weeks of a fifteen or sixteen week semester) without a break, followed by just one week and then finals. There are ways to make this schedule manageable, but I found that I and my students were so worn down from the breakneck pace of the semester that the week or so before Thanksgiving was a struggle.
The semester schedule at my current job is not as much of a structural challenge, but I still try to be attentive to fluctuating energy levels. The issues I am facing in my Roman History course are myriad and varied, and those issues go far beyond this issue of energy levels. However, the place where I am mulling over these bigger-picture issues is in the first-year seminar that I’m teaching for the first time. The course ticks a number of boxes of things that the students are supposed to have done, but I’m treating it as primarily an introduction to college that can talk to the students about building community and developing resilience that will carry them through the rest of their career. The content will help promote critical thinking, but it is a vehicle for these much more important skills. At this point in the semester, though, they’re hitting a wall in the adjustment to the college semester.
This week’s varia:
- An earthquake with a magnitude 7.8 hit Türkiye and Syria on the morning of February 6, with at least 55 aftershocks. As of writing this on Saturday, the estimated death toll has risen to more than 23,000, with the ongoing civil war in northern Syria complicating relief efforts and probably understating the casualties. The pictures from the disaster are devastating, but it is important in this instance not to fixate on the lost antiquities in the face of such a catastrophic humanitarian crisis that struck a region already straining under a refugee crisis. The latest reports are saying that the people left homeless have been unable to get food for days.
- AI is helping to decipher a papyrus that may contain a lost history of Alexander the Great and the early Hellenistic period. The papyrus was found in the Villa of the Papyri at Herculaneum, which was buried by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE.
- Patrice Rankine takes the help of Pasts Imperfects this week for a discussion of Classics during Reconstruction.
- Joel Christensen asks whether ChatGPT dreams of electric heroes, engaging with the question of AI art and narrative. I particularly like this line, which eloquently states one of the reasons I want to treat AI as an information literacy problem: “The meaning is not intrinsic to the words themselves and the reader/viewer creates a meaning based on their own experience. When we read a ChatGPT composition, it has been created by human beings to predict human-like articulations, but we create the meaning through our own interpretation. Our embodied experience provides nuance to what we do with texts and what they do to us in turn.”
- According to the Vermont Digger, when Vermont State University launches in July (Johnson and Lyndon merged into Northern Vermont University in 2018 and the new change merges NVU with Castleton and Vermont Technical College) it will do so with an “all-digital academic library,” with a plan to transform the spaces into community commons and student services. If you look at this from a purely logistical perspective, centralizing all resources in a single digital repository for five campuses makes some degree of sense. But I also hate the decision. Transitioning to digital makes the services that much more impersonal and library websites are not the most user-friendly unless you already know what you’re looking for. Moreover, there are resources that are virtually impossible to get online (or whose UI is likewise so off-putting that they might as well be), to say nothing about the serendipity of what you can find in a library. Above all, though, you can brand those buildings as community centers and study space, but libraries already provide those services and I strongly suspect that study spaces in libraries receive more use than designated study spaces elsewhere. Sometimes, a little bit of inefficiency in the system can actually be productive.
- Graduate students at Temple University are striking, which follows in the wake of other graduate student labor activism over the past few years. What makes this strike notable is that the university has acted on its threats to withhold tuition waivers and health benefits to force the students to capitulate. In at least one instance (seen on Twitter) the University also simply took the tuition money paid by an outside grant.
- The Washington Post has a piece on the rise of school voucher systems that allow parents to send their children to private religious school. These programs are part of two concurrent feedback loops: the one defunding public school so that parents want alternatives that further defund schools; the other heightened partisanship that prompts parents to insulate their children from the rest of society by sending them to private schools that shapes their education around narrow religious and ideological values that further heightens partisanship.
- Chick-fil-A is debuting a cauliflower sandwich with no chicken in response to customer demand for more vegetables. Critics are blasting the company for “going woke.” It is hard to tell whether the outrage is sincere, feigned, or parodied, but does it even matter? We’re increasingly living in a media environment where each of the three feeds and strengthens the other two.
- Iowa is considering a bill that would change child labor laws to extend the list of permissible jobs for teenagers and to extend the hours that they are allowed to work later in the evening, while also shielding the companies from liability and giving special licenses to allow 14 years-olds to drive themselves to work. The bill is designed to address worker shortages and to give teens on-the-job training, but it is also a depressing reflection of the backsliding of labor protections in this country.
- The latest attempts to scuttle Twitter include limits on the number of accounts one can follow and the number of messages that people can send, likely in a two-pronged attempt to reduce strain on the servers and encourage people to sign up for Blue. This is at the same time that Twitter is rolling out 4,000 character Tweets, which I have already said are the surest way to cause me to disengage with the platform.
- Speaking of Musk, he seems to have fired one of the two remaining top engineers after he dared tell Musk that his engagement was down because people are choosing not to engage with either Musk or his site, rather than because the algorithm was suppressing engagement. When the emperor has no clothes, do you dare tell him that he’s naked?
- George Santos had a warrant out for his arrest on the charge of stealing puppies from Pennsylvania in 2017. Because of course he did.
- The Boston Review has a good piece on rare earth mining. The article is a nice complement to an episode of Fresh Air last week about cobalt mining in the Congo.
- US officials are saying that the balloon that caused a stir last week was part of a program that flew balloons over countries on five continents and that those balloons had technology to monitor communications. The week ended with US warplanes shooting down a second object, this time over Alaska.
- CNN has a piece on the looming ecological and health crisis that is the evaporation of the Great Salt Lake.
- To close with a fun story: a woodpecker in California stashed more than 700 pounds of acorns in the walls of a person’s home.
Album of the week: Great Big Sea, Play (1997)
Currently reading: Fonda Lee, Jade War, Matthew Canepa, The Iranian Expanse (still, since I didn’t finish either last week)