Weekly Varia no. 7, 12/31/22

I write enough about myself this time of year through my end-of year reflections (writing and books are up, with a general meditation and resolutions to come) that I don’t feel the need for short essay about whatever I’m thinking about on a Saturday morning this week.

Happy New Year.

This week’s varia:

  • Peter Kidd documents manuscript provenance on his own blog. I’m not a regular reader, but his post this week caught my attention. For his tenth anniversary post, Kidd relates his exchange with the secretary of an author whose recent book appears to plagiarize his blog. The conversation includes denial, threats of lawyers (not on his part), and the claim that since his blog isn’t significant enough to warrant citation because it is just a blog. The last is particularly galling. Blogs might not pass through peer review and come out through academic publishers, but that doesn’t mean that they are always inconsequential. To paraphrase something that Dr. Sarah Bond has been saying for a number of years now: writing in academic blogs is an exercise in public scholarship that can help ensure the vitality of a field, but they will only be considered legitimate if people cite them. At the same time, plagiarism is still plagiarism. If you use an idea, cite it.
    • Since the original post went up, the publisher appears to have made the PDF of the book in question unavailable, digitally altered a bunch of the online material, and questions have emerged about both the staff and the physical office of the publisher. People associated with RECEPTIO responded aggressively with reverse accusations, threats to involve the police, and attempts to “anonymously” harass and dox Kidd in an attempt to preserve what increasingly appears to be a scam to funnel grant money through and convince people to spend fees for workshops at this “research institute.” Kidd has written several additional blog posts that address specific parts of her responses. I have seen more than one academic demand a movie about one of the most flagrant cases of scholarly malpractice that I can recall and how the whole thing unraveled in just under a week as researchers trained in the very particular skills of identifying how manuscripts influence one another and in spotting misinformation turned their attentions to RECEPTIO.
  • A great piece about Sudanese archaeologists doing work that has traditionally been done by Western expeditions that used local labor and expertise, but erased them from the process of interpreting the past and receiving credit for the work.
  • Hamline University has non-renewed the contract of a contingent professor of religion who offered a lesson in an online class about historical Muslim representations of the Prophet Muhammad after a student complained. The Hamline Oracle has the fullest description of the incident and points out the steps that the professor took to offer content warnings and to allow observant Muslims to opt out of seeing the images. The administration is alleging that the lesson constitutes Islamophobia Rather than standing behind the subject matter expert, or, you know, historical reality, the administration chose to cut ties with the faculty member and could do so with no repercussion because the person in question had no job security. This is one of the major issues with contingent contracts in higher education right now. I also recommend Amna Khalid’s essay explaining why the administration’s actions offend her both as a professor and as a muslim.
  • A court has ruled that the Marine Corps cannot reject Sikh men who refuse to shave their beards based on their religious beliefs. The Marines claimed that these rules were a matter of national security, but the court sided with the plaintiffs who alleged that the policy reflects “stereotypes about what Americans should look like.”
  • George Santos has admitted to “embellishing” key parts of his biography, but insists that he is neither a fraud nor a criminal (CNN). I’m not comfortable about how people are questioning his sexuality given that he was previously married to a woman, but the rest of these are serious issues.
  • Stefan Passantino, the lawyer representing Cassidy Hutchinson during the January 6 probe encouraged her to lie about the events of that day and obfuscated when she inquired who was paying his fees, probably because the funding appears to have passed through a Trump-connected PAC, creating a conflict of interest that he did not disclose.
  • There are currently five transgender athletes competing according to their gender identity in Missouri high school sports, but ten bills to limit their participation in high school athletics pre-filed with the Missouri legislature. Because, of course there are (Missouri Independent).
  • Southwest Airlines cancelled thousands of flights this week. Weather is partly to blame, but people in the know are saying that Southwest’s antiquated scheduling system and staffing problems bear more responsibility. Pete Buttigieg had asserted that conditions were getting better, but 34 state attorneys general had written to him urging him to impose fines for airlines with avoidable cancellations and delays, something he has not done. Naturally, money that could have gone toward modernizing their systems has been spent on executive bonuses, dividends, stock buybacks, and lobbying.
  • Andrew Tate has been detained in Romania on charges of human trafficking…because the video he recorded responding to Greta Thunberg online retort displayed a pizza box that allowed authorities to confirm his whereabouts. Romanian officials are claiming that the timing is coincidental, but it makes for a better story.
  • Dinosaur skeletons rarely preserve their last meal, but a researcher named Hans Larsson recently identified such a find and discovered that the microraptor (a 3-foot tall dinosaur) had eaten a small mammal. Dinosaurs remain very cool.

Album of the week: Johnny Clegg and Savuka, “Cruel, Crazy, Beautiful World”

Currently reading: Reeves Wiedeman, Billion Dollar Loser, Mary Boatwright, Peoples of the Roman World

Weekly Varia no. 6, 12/24/22

One of two things happens when I submit grades at the end of the semester. Sometimes, words start flowing, as though they have been building up behind a dam of grading that has now opened its sluice gate. Other times, I emerge from the final push in a fog that takes several days to dissipate. The harder the semester, the higher the odds of the second outcome.

This was an exceedingly difficult semester for me and its conclusion coincided with a storm front that brought both ice and snow ahead of a holiday weekend, all of which made settling in for a few days of inactivity an attractive proposition. I’ve relished how much time I’ve been able to spend reading the past few days—in addition to the lengthy round up below, I’m on my third novel since the end of the semester—and I’m getting back to my usual routine of baking bread (sweet treats can wait until there is less candy in the house). I suppose that this is how holidays are supposed to go. There will be time to return to more substantive posts next week and in the new year.

Merry Christmas and Happy Chanukah, since the pairing is actually appropriate this year.

This week’s varia:

  • This was a neat story about how John Gompers repatriated a number of antiquities that had been acquired by his grandmother, the Dutch archaeologist Gisela Schneider-Herrmann, and were now sitting in his mother’s garage. He started by Googling “How do you repatriate antiquities?” If a random citizen can do it, then surely so can major institutions since in his insistence that objects belong in museums, Dr. Jones leaves out a critical piece of information: where that museum is located.
  • Staying on the theme of repatriation, Germany has returned 22 of the Benin Bronzes to Nigeria (BBC). These are some of my favorite objects from Africa, but the overwhelming majority of them were looted by European colonizers, removed from the walls of buildings where they told the history of the people, and taken European and American museums. This is a good start.
  • A beautiful necklace from 7th century CE Britain has been discovered. I grimaced at the use of “Anglo-Saxon” in the article, but the artifact itself is spectacular (Washington Post).
  • New Maya settlements have been discovered in Guatemala. Ignore the headline: these were previously unknown settlements, but not a lost civilization. The real story here is that LiDAR is so cool.
  • I love Higher Education. It isn’t Loving me Back.” Continuing with the theme from last week, Hannah Leffingwell writes in Jacobin about the New School Strike and the cultish atmosphere of academia. I particularly like how she describes her realization that a favorite professor from undergrad was leaving because her contract was up: “I was too young and naïve to understand what she was up against: a system that demanded her full and unwavering commitment to “the profession” while offering only temporary, part-time work in return — or, if she was lucky, a grueling tenure-track position in a state where she had no family or friends and probably didn’t want to live.” I often fear that pulling the curtain back with students will only lead to more disillusion, but I also think that students deserve to know what is happening at the institutions where they are studying.
  • An interesting piece about peer review by Adam Mastroianni at his Substack. His argument is that “peer review” in the sciences, which developed as a means to prove to funding bodies that the experiments being run were worthwhile, offers at best a marginal benefit to the actual product. More frequently, he argues, it both fails to catch serious flaws and inhibits potentially valuable research. Coming from a field that straddles the humanities and social sciences, I am sympathetic to some of the frustrations with peer review, especially when it is used as a means of gate-keeping, but ditching peer review isn’t going to bring back great discoveries. Moreover, by the end of the piece, Mastroianni acknowledges the value of receiving feedback with an anecdote about a recent paper he published online at his site, making this a critique of the specific peer review apparatus and the rhythms of academic work.
  • This week in their new newsletter Modern Medieval, Matt Gabriele and David Perry, authors of The Bright Ages, write about the shallow “medievalism” of the architectural trend “Castlecore.”
  • Kelly Baker, in her newsletter Cold Takes writes about the existential crisis of being a writer who didn’t write for most of a year. I adore Baker’s memoir Grace Period, which is a deeply-moving accounting of her falling out of academia. I’m glad that she seems to have found her words again.
  • At The Conversation, Casey Fiesler offers perspective on the migration away from Twitter as compared with previous platforms. The short version: no platform will replicate Twitter, but the communities that form in one place tend to be resilient as members find themselves in other spaces.
  • From The Washington Post, an article with the title “The crisis of student mental health is much vaster than we realize.” Speaking as a teacher at the college level, yup. However, I always get a little bit leery about articles that center mental health services as the solution. They’re important, no doubt, but too often I’ve seen the availability of those services as either as a crutch, or their absence as an excuse, to avoid confronting larger systemic causes of the mental health problem.
  • A long read in Pro Publica, Lynzy Billing reports on the so-called Zero Units, Afghan forces trained and supported by the CIA. These units conducted night time raids in Afghan villages under the pretense of hunting militia leaders, a practice that carried over from the Vietnam War and with the predictable results of hundreds of civilian casualties. She quotes a US army ranger succinctly identifying the core problem with the US strategy in the country: “You go on night raids, make more enemies, then you gotta go on more night raids for the more enemies you now have to kill.”
  • Greece is preparing to expand its border wall with Turkey in 2023 as a deterrent to migrants. Both Greece and Turkey have been playing politics with migrants for a number of years now and it is killing people.
  • A police chief in small town Iowa has been charged with lying to the ATF to acquire fully-automatic machine guns, some of which he resold. At least the ATF denied the transfer of a minigun that is usually mounted on helicopters (the department has three members an no helicopter).
  • George Santos, Republican congressman-elect from New York, has come under scrutiny for having lied about his biography during the campaign, including both his education and work history. The latest fiction seems to be his family history, which, he claims, includes Jewish family members that fled from Ukraine to Belgium, survived the Holocaust, and then ended up in Brazil. Except that there is no evidence of this heritage (CNN).
  • From the Huffington Post, Chuck Schumer seems to be trying to run out the clock on a (moderate) anti-trust bill targeting online monopolies. This is why we can’t have nice things.
  • In Slate, David Zipper highlights the problems with CLEAR, a private company that is empowered to accept what amount to bribes in data and money to skip the TSA line.
  • A new report indicates dangerous levels of Cadmium and other heavy metals in dark chocolate.
  • A piece at CNN Business talks about changing norms around tipping three years into the pandemic: basically, it is as it has been. American tipping culture sucks because it foists the costs of workers making a living wage onto the consumer. I would rather pay a bit more and have employers pay a living wage.
  • I’m a recent convert to e-books, but I have recently found the reading experience on Kindle Paperwhite both easy and convenient, so I was both interested and disappointed to read this blog post suggesting that Amazon will be phasing out the devices.

Album of the week: Old Bear Mountain, “On the Run”

Now reading: Anthony Doerr, Cloud Cuckoo Land; Michael J. Decker, The Sasanian Empire at War

My menorah on night 4

Weekly Varia no. 5, 12/17/22

Winter appears to be setting in for real in this corner of Northern Missouri. I am looking out a window at snowflakes bouncing on the wind while I write these words and it has been below consistently below freezing for the past few days, though the forecast is calling for a slight reprieve for a few days before the next polar vortex sets in for the upcoming holiday. I happen to like winter weather, don’t mind the cold, and am not daunted by a few flurries, but I have also been finding myself sipping my tea and wondering how this weather is going to affect my running since this is the longest stretch I have ever managed to run outdoors in my life.

The other topic I find running through my mind on this Saturday morning is related to the Jon Lauck and Steven Mintz links in this week’s roundup (see below). While the job market for history PhDs has been somewhere between bad and very bad for a long time, Lauck offers data that suggests that it is positively catastrophic: of 1799 history PhDs granted between 2019 and 2020, only 175 are “full-time faculty members,” and those numbers are warped by the years of backlog leading up to 2019 that caused people like me (2017 PhD) to still be job hunting. The issue, fundamentally, is that colleges and universities are not hiring to replace retirees. Lauck provides a sample of Midwestern universities, including both my PhD-granting institution and my current employer, that have cut 34% of their faculty lines on average over the past ten years. This is bad. However, as often emerges in these debates, the data is also a little misleading. Truman State (my employer) in his data went from 15 tenured or tenure track historians to 4, but the latter number doesn’t count me or the other two full-time year-to-year faculty members in the department. It is still a catastrophic decline and it is extremely difficult to build sustainable programs that attract students on the back of faculty who don’t know whether they will be teaching the following year, but it also removes nearly half of our faculty from the conversation.

Likewise, while I share the sentiment found online that big professional organizations and a lot of secure faculty at prestigious institutions are complacent about the state of the field in ways that contribute to its degradation, I can say with certainty that my tenured colleagues are furious that their staffing requests to replace tenure lines are routinely approved for year-to-year hires. This is short-term thinking on the part of our institutions, but it is also the state of play. Even beyond self-interest, this is why I have dedicated so much time and energy to contingent faculty issues over the past few years. Tenure is a wonderful idea, but I think that the future of the field requires urgent action to change both perceptions and working conditions of the people who didn’t win that particular lottery. To that end, I am fortunate to work at an institution with colleagues both on and off the tenure line who agree and an active AAUP chapter that has been fighting to create a more sustainable future.

This week’s varia:

  • Researchers mapping the floor of Lake Mjøsa, Norway’s largest lake, looking for dumped munitions discovered a shipwreck that could date to as early as the 1300s.
  • At Everyday Orientalism, Rachel Yuen-Collingridge writes about her decades as a contingent scholar. She concludes: “Let us be able to look upon eclectic, experimental, flexible professional identities and pursuits as signs of vitality not of a lack of focus, ambition, and seriousness. If we truly want to change contingency or contribute to its change, perhaps a good starting point is to challenge the cultures of contingency and the hierarchies which feed upon it.” Shorter: we need to change the structural insecurity and pay equity issues, but those substantive changes are impossible without changing the perception that contingent faculty are less than full time ones.
  • Pasts Imperfects is a great weekly newsletter dealing with antiquity. This week (12.15.22): Hpone Myint Tu has a short piece and reading lists about animals in the ancient Mediterranean, along with snippets from Sarah Bond’s recent article at Hyperallergic about new research by Jordan Pickett into the intersection of Christianity and Roman baths and a recent article about excavations at the Aksumite city of Adulis in modern Eritrea.
  • Chanukah is coming up and Alana Vincent has a really nice piece at Time about the rituals around a holiday that is both minor and “the primary festival of Jewish visibility.” My favorite observation is that the current celebration is one that the Maccabees themselves would have hated.
  • Jon K. Lauck offers a stark assessment of the state of history departments in the Midwest in the Middle West Review (from September). I don’t know that his prescription is viable and think both that the causes are a little more varied and the some of the data about support for history softer than is implied here, but, speaking both as a graduate and current faculty member of programs mentioned in this survey: he’s not wrong in the big picture. Lauck’s data provides the foundation for Steven Mintz’ latest column at Inside Higher Ed, where he, not unreasonably, suggests that we’re seeing an “end of history” in the sense that it is a discipline literally being downsized.
  • Paul Thomas adds his voice to the chorus of writing teachers saying that ChatGPT is only a threat to writing assessments desperately in need of changing, pointing out that this is a redux of the Turnitin problem. There were additional articles on this topic last week.
  • If you’ve ever wanted to hear the phrase “the first time anyone ever asserted a First Amendment right to see the president’s son’s penis, an argument that the Framers likely did not anticipate,” then Adam Serwer in the Atlantic has you covered. Starting from the so-called “Twitter Files” being published by Elon Musk’s flunkies and the issue of stories about Hunter Biden’s laptop that Twitter suppressed because they contained nude images, Serwer expands out into a compelling discussion about how the conservative movement is warping interpretations of the first amendment and offers a narrow defense of social media companies.
  • “Free speech” on Twitter means blocking journalists who are critical of new ownership, ostensibly because they are posting information that is a direct threat to Musk and his family even though the alleged footage was nowhere near him (both links to Gizmodo). In the sense that every accusation that reactionary conservatives have levied against people they don’t like has been a matter of projection, capricious bans such as these were all-but inevitable.
  • Judd Legum and Rebecca Crosby at Popular Information report on how a man named Bruce Friedman has been exploiting recent legislation in Florida to flood school districts with demands that they remove material from school library without having either read the books in question or providing evidence that the books are causing harm to students.
  • German special forces raided more than 150 properties around Germany and arrested 25 people accused of plotting a coup to topple the German state and establish a new monarchy. The central figure in the coup is Heinrich XIII, the 71-year-old scion of an aristocratic family, but, more concerning, the arrested ringleaders include members of the German security service (BBC).
  • Emily Stewart at Vox lays out the current state of the Sam Bankman-Fried FTX saga and starts to explore what I think are the more substantial concerns surrounding the lurid saga, namely that while the scale of the crimes in this case are spectacular, but the crimes themselves are quite ubiquitous and the media and financial apparatuses in the modern US provide superficial cover for people like SBF to profit.
  • From a few weeks ago, BBC has a story about the kenari nut which could have a future as a dairy substitute and developing commercial possibilities might stem deforestation in Indonesia.

Album of the week: Kitchen Dwellers, “Wise River”

Now reading: Brandon Sanderson, The Lost Metal; Michael J. Decker, The Sasanian Empire at War