This was a big week for me because my first book was officially released. I will have an update on what comes next for my writing soon enough, but, first, I have to get through this semester. This week marked the end of the first half of the spring semester. Flowers are starting to pop up around Kirksville, but I mostly didn’t get to enjoy them because I was busy trying to finish a round of grading so that I had one less thing to do over the next week. I didn’t quite meet my goals because my week filled up with meeting after meeting as everyone tried to squeeze in one more thing before break. Still, I got close enough that I should be able to take a much needed few days off over the next week.
This week’s varia:
Pasts Imperfect this week came early to align with Purim. The lead story is Jordan Rosenbaum unpacking the history of Hamantaschen, concluding that the traditional cookie is indeed symbolic, but comes from a different part of the figure of Esther and represents neither Haman nor a hat.
Javal Coleman writes in the SCS Blog about being the only Black person in a Classics Department. This is a great piece about belonging and the modern propensity to define black people as outside rather than the ancient tendency for inclusion. I read this when it first came out two weeks ago and meant to include it in a previous wrap-up but failed to do so.
Matt Gabriele brings an old blog post to Modern Medieval, in which he critiques the idea of a meaningful distinction between “public” and “academic” scholarship in terms of what we are actually doing (rather than genre conventions and tone). He notes that this is a blog post. from 2015, but is again timely in light of a recent New Yorker story dredging up last year’s controversy about “public history,” which had the former president of the American Historical Association, James Sweet, airing his grievances against trained historians who engage the public online. The piece is not worth linking to, but, like his jeremiads last year in his presidential column in Perspectives, Sweet’s willingness to air his grievances against younger, tenuously-employed generations is a dispiriting omen about the future of the profession given that a) he is hardly the only senior scholar to feel this way, and b) far from confronting the fact that the field is under attack—thus foreclosing an academic home for those people he lamented were simply Tweeting away—it gives more fuel to those people doing the attacking.
Bill Caraher weighs in on ChatGPT. I appreciate his willingness to express what he does not know, and see some sense in his suggestion that ChatGPT and similar products might be able to replace remediation for students who understand the material in every way except the writing. I’m not sure I agree in whole, but he’s right that there is a cost for both the student and the teacher when you need to take time doing what is effectively remedial work, and I have often found that campus writing centers are only so helpful when students need this sort of foundational help. He followed it up with a thoughtful post on paywalls, publishing, and AI aggregation.
Paul Thomas has a discussion of ChatGPT, but through the lens of citation in the sense that it (and the new I.B. guidelines) has added another layer to the cognitive load that comes with citation. His position here is also rooted in the chaos of trying to teach and unteach nitpicky citation style (rather than hyperlinks, which would only work for some fields, even at a future date), which prompt students to get distracted from the process and meaning of citation in the name of accurate formatting. I’m certainly sympathetic to that frustration.
A new study is claiming that there was no exacerbation of mental health crises during the pandemic, which they concluded by excluding from the study lower-income countries or study the effects on younger groups or anyone who was already prone to mental illness. This might be correct within the bounds of the study, but only by generalizing so much that it masks a more accurate representation of what happened. This also might speak to the human capacity for resilience and forgetting. For my part, I’m still waiting for the period of lockdown boredom I was promised.
Elon Musk is reportedly planning his own town in Texas. I don’t like giving the man air time, but something about the Wall Street Journal headline (I can’t read the whole part because I’m not a subscriber) touched a nerve. Company towns are not utopias, and we should be very wary of the latest return to a Gilded Age labor environment, alongside…
From NPR, a story about a Medicaid requirement that if a person receiving treatment under the program dies, the state government is supposed to recoup the amount spent from the estate. Some states do this in a pro-forma way and collect almost nothing or set relatively high income thresholds, while states like Iowa contract the task out and aggressively recoup the costs—including by seizing the home. Even with carve-outs for spouses and disabled children that can defer collection, this seems to be an exercise of cruelty in the name of fiscal responsibility.
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.
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?