Weekly Varia no. 17, 03/11/23

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…
  • Arkansas became the latest state to facilitate child labor.
  • 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.
  • More and more companies are admitting that the recent “emergencies” are excuses to increase prices even when it is not strictly necessary to keep up with rising costs, and prices in these situations tend not to go back down.
  • Silicon Valley Bank, a bank that services many tech startups, collapsed after a panic this week. SVB pursued “Venture Debt,” where provides money for those startups, but the companies were spending much more money than anticipated. Not for nothing, this collapse also follows just a few years after another round of banking deregulation.
  • The BBC has decided not to air and episode from the latest David Attenborough program because it includes themes of environmental destruction and they fear right-wing backlash. Not only is this a travesty, but Attenborough’s work has featured these issues for years, so it isn’t as though this is a new development.
  • RIP Tevye the Milkman.
  • Some Toblerone packaging is going to have to drop the Matterhorn from its packaging because the company is moving part of its production to Slovakia, thus violating Swiss rules on “Swissness.” This AP piece has a neat trivia point, too, that the name is a neologism that blends the founder’s name (Theodor Tobler) with the Italian word for nougat (torrone).

Album of the Week: Moscow Philharmonic, Russian Easter Festival Op. 36 (Tchaikovsky Symphony no. 5 and Rimsky-Korsakov Russian Easter Festival Overture, a.k.a. grading music)

Currently Reading: Dan Saladino, Eating to Extinction; Salman Rushdie, Midnight’s Children (it was a long week of grading)

Hamantaschen two ways: cherry and poppyseed.
Libby in full fighting form (on her back, yelling)

Goodbye, Lincoln Chafee

I was not going to vote for Lincoln Chafee in the Democratic primary. In fact, at this point, there is little any of the candidates could do to actually change my mind as to who to vote for. To be honest, the only major change in my opinions since campaigning began way back before the Canadian election kicked off is that Martin O’Malley, the candidate I knew least about, moved up in my opinion, rather than not even being on the radar.

These campaigns are long, loud, and serious and, while mocking things said by Republican candidates trivializes the seriousness of governance and the traction they have among voters, humor is a nice break from the grind of American campaigns. But I don’t want to talk about them. Instead, I want to share some appreciation for Lincoln Chafee, who just withdrew from the Democratic primary race.

To date, Chafee had my favorite campaign plank: convert the United States to the metric system. His reasoning made sense, namely that the changes will not be too painful and that there are economic benefits, but it was this sort of non-traditional statements that made me like him and his withdrawal speech lived up to expectations.

Chafee linked Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Vietnam War, the Middle East, and Feminist International Relations theory in his speech before the Women’s Leadership Forum (without directly saying that Hilary Clinton should be president). As a historian of Ancient Greece I always appreciate a good reference to Greek theater, the other great example of which being Bobby Kennedy’s impromptu invocation of Aeschylus the night of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. Chafee mentions the basic plot of Aristophanes’ play, albeit not its conservatism, and encourages women to get involved in ending wars around the world. But his message is also reminiscent of another feature of Aristophanes’ play–that it is women from around Greece who make a joint cause to stop wars. Chafee’s message was one of understanding an unification and said, “from what I’ve heard none of the Republicans running for president want to understand anything about the Middle East and North Africa.”

I wasn’t going to vote for Chafee, but, at least on the day he withdrew, he preached a humanistic message of understanding and obliquely endorsed the value in a classical education.

Assorted Links

  1. Name Calling– A note in the New Yorker pointing out that, while there are still groups in existence claiming to the name Al Qaeda, those jihadist groups are increasingly local, which makes it hard to argue that it is feasible to have a war on terror (much less one that tries to use Al Qaeda as the target).
  2. In Defense of Classics (and Other Liberal Arts)-Another essay (via Rogue Classicism) arguing that the liberal arts train broad thinkers and creative people who can adapt to the specific needs of a workplace, rather than having specific, non-transferable skills that may themselves be antiquated in a few years.
  3. Diary of Archduke Franz Ferdnand RediscoveredFrom Spiegel, Archduke Franz Ferdinand kept a diary on his journey around the world; that diary has been rediscovered. This article discusses some of the things the Archduke did and saw on the trip, including his hunting excursions, his disappointment with Americans, and prisons/work camps in Australia.
  4. The Modern King in the Arab Spring– In the Atlantic, a portrait of King Abdullah of Jordan. This is a favorable account of his efforts to promote democracy, stability, and prosperity in the industrial world. The article notes some of the problems and difficulties Jordan faces as a country (poverty, refugees, lack of oil, Syria, etc), and also talks more generally about the problems faced by an absolute ruler in the modern world.
  5. Obama Sarcastically Asks How Israel Afforded Such a Great Missile Defense System– From the Onion.

Second Letter to the provost

April 24, 2009

Dear Provost Krauss,

Yesterday I mailed off a physical letter voicing my concerns over the proposed readjustment of the Classics Department. After attending the forum yesterday to hear CARS members discuss what is proposed and to respond to concerns, I felt compelled to write again. At the risk of redundancy, I first want to press home some lingering concerns, specifically ones brought up at the forum and not addressed, or not addressed satisfactorily. Second, I want to voice a concern over the manner in which Dean Jaffe addressed some of the concerns, as well as his demeanor.

The forum members brought to light many convincing arguments and examples in which American Studies and Afro-African American Studies are taught as interdepartmental programs across the country. One of the members was an American Studies professor and it was a convincing display. The same could not be said of Classics. When suggested that this was breaking up a department that functions well together, quite possibly putting it into a department that does not cooperate in the same fashion, the response was that Classics would make them get along. I felt that this flippant response did not address the issue that the move is breaking up a department that functions.

The only response to concerns over external funding reduction based on the status of the Classics Department, and the ability to draw students was: “we considered that.” Such a response does not address the concern, nor does it enlighten the people concerned. Further, the reduction of Classics sends the wrong message to other departments because if Classics is doing everything right and is still in danger, then what does that do for less successful programs.

Lastly on this point, there was a lot of talk about raising the prestige of the recipient departments, but not about the prestige of Classics or of the Humanities at a whole. In my physical letter I outlined a suggestion to make Classics the hub of the Humanities. Would it not be possible to associate many outside faculty and even some new hires with Classics? In this way the Brandeis Classics department could keep the core group of four people, but have a much higher profile through multiple associated faculty. Without changing any course offerings, such a system could associate Professors Visvardi, Kapelle, Levy, Meyer and perhaps a few others.

I did not attend the first forum and was a few minutes late to the one yesterday, so I do not know all of what transpired, but I felt genuinely insulted by the manner in which Dean Jaffe responded to some of the questions about Classics and in particular from the UDR Alex Smith. I felt that he was callous and unresponsive to answering legitimate questions about the department and the current structure, but instead simply offered flippant responses. Perhaps the concerns had been addressed elsewhere, before, or with other people, but as someone who had not been to the first event, I had not heard the answers. For a university that claims such diversity and is proud of its progressive and active student body, I was immensely disappointed to walk away from the meeting feeling that it was nothing more than a sham, a way to placate the students by appearing to listen to their concerns, yet not really offering answers or explanations. If the questions had already been answered sufficiently, then no question would be repeated.

I, and many other alumni, feel that if Brandeis would like to remain a premier Liberal Arts University, it must retain a Classics Department. I understand that times are tough, but at present “The Arts” do not seem to be a priority when it comes to the College of Arts and Sciences. As someone who was quite proud of the education I received in the Humanities, this is a true disappointment.


First letter to Administrative staff

April 21, 2009

Dear Dean Jaffe and whomever else it may concern,

While my experience at Brandeis was a mixed bag, it was largely good; the brightest spot for me was the Classics Department. Most of what I learned at Brandeis stems from that department and to a person I have them to thank, for their efforts, encouragement and support, that I shall be attending graduate school in the same field this coming fall.

Yesterday I learned disturbing news. This department to which I owe so much is on the ropes once more. The last time this occurred I was but a freshman and taking courses based solely on interest; the major came later, but it was possible because the department survived.

What made the Classics Department unique and what fostered such a great atmosphere stems from the professors. As the CARS report states, each of these educators works overtime, teaches a range of subjects and are always available for student support. The department as a whole puts forth so much, with lecture series’, fellowships, events and opportunities for student research to be presented. Overall, these efforts create a community unlike anything else I have seen at Brandeis. Academics are the primary goal, but the department is so much more than just that, which ultimately creates the active, open citizens that Brandeis both desires and prides itself upon.

By and large I agree with the findings of the CARS report, but then the only negative finding is that the structure is imperfect. I shall not proceed along the findings point-by-point, but rather focus on the two that I disagree with. First, it is not irony that prompts the decision to reduce the faculty, but hypocrisy. Second, and stemming directly from the first, three USEMs from four professors is outstanding and nothing I have heard of suggests that other departments do likewise. These professors have put everything they have and then some into making Brandeis a better place and ensuring that the students receive the best education possible.

Further, a high portion of the Classical Studies majors produce senior research theses and the professors in question unerringly support them in their production. Just in my graduating year, 2008, two of the students produced theses, two were Eunice M Lebowitz-Cohen Fellows, two worked in the CLARC research center as fellows and one more ran an independent study in that same artifact collection. Each of these projects, as well as an abandoned thesis was overseen by a faculty member in the Classics Department. As stated in the CARS report,the reward for activity and fostering an air of learning is disbandment and staff reduction.

I do understand that in this time of economic hardship action must be taken, and therefore have come up with an alternative: make the Classics Department the focal point of the humanities at Brandeis. Let this department remain and instead of shipping off the faculty members to other departments, associate other faculty with it. The CARS report suggests expanding Classics as a field; this sounds wonderful, but instead of simply ‘Ancient Studies,’ keep it Classics, but offer a language and literature track, a history track, an art and archeology track, a culture track, et cetera. Let Classics serve as a hub for the other majors, a place where the study of Plato will serve as a literature course, a politics course, and a culture course. By associating other departments with Classics, you will not only fulfill the mission statement of the department itself, but also make it more interdisciplinary and raise the class sizes by making the humanities and some social sciences more closely knit. The converse, a merge and scattering of the faculty virtually ensures that this diverse field will fade away and instead of more Classics majors and students, there will be fewer.

To close, I was honored to be a Eunice M Lebowitz-Cohen fellow of 2007-8. Since having that unique opportunity to research and design a class on a field that I was unable to study at Brandeis, I have wanted nothing more than to return the favor. My goal is to give back to the Brandeis Classics Department in some tangible way, ideally through the creation of a fellowship or lecture series to give interested students a chance to research or learn about a topic they would not otherwise learn of. I may only have begun my life after school, but down the road I would repay the considerable debt I feel towards the department. If the department ceases to exist, I will regretfully be unable to fulfill my goal of giving back to Brandeis Classics, wherein I feel my obligation to the university lies.

Regretfully yours,

CARS Report

Despite a glowing report, the academic review board at Brandeis University has decided that Classics is not important enough to justify a full department, nor enough to keep the faculty level even if divided among other departments. The text of the report follows.

“Classical Studies (Classics) is a vibrant, small department that consists of four full-time faculty members who each teach a variety of courses, including frequent overloads. They offer a wide range of courses in languages, literature, art, archaeology, philosophy, history, religion, and mythology. Classics has developed initiatives with Theater Arts, Fine Arts, Anthropology and other departments.

The prize winning faculty of Classics (all four members of the department have been honored, whether by the profession at large or at Brandeis for teaching) are interdisciplinary at the core, much like NEJS, AMST, and AAAS, but their overarching focus is to, in the words of one of its members, “preserve and study the roots of western civilization.” Unlike those other departments, however, each of the members of the department is interdisciplinary and teaches in several of these different areas. At the last BOT meeting in March a new, revenue-generating MA in Greek and Roman Studies was approved; this will target teachers of Latin and Greek in the Boston area. They already mount a successful outreach program, as well as a certificate program.

Classics offers some courses with high enrollments. They graduate approximately 8 majors per year. They teach over 300 students per year. Thus the small classes are compensated for by some larger ones. They have offered approximately three USEMs per year.

This department satisfies, amply and with distinction, most all of criteria that CARS has sought to apply to its deliberations. Classics contributes to multiple missions, to the undergraduate experience, to the general excellence of the university. Moreover, its discipline is essential to a university of our caliber. Its programs are distinctive and synergistic. However, it is clear to the committee that its organizational structure is not optimal, since a separate department of four is exceedingly small, and some important decisions must be made with committees that are enlarged by the Dean.

We therefore suggest that the Classics faculty, while keeping its excellent majors and minors intact, join another department or departments. Its major would continue to exist, although CARS suggests that it could become an even more broadly conceived program in Classical and Ancient Studies. Although no such move can be perfect, we could imagine them joining, together or individually, NEJS, ROMS, GRALL, Philosophy or Anthropology, or some other
department(s) of their choice. This decision should be made by the members of department in consultation with the Dean and with relevant faculty in other departments. We also recommend
that, over time, the faculty devoted to Classics be reduced from 4 to 3. We believe that their previous, heroic, USEM contribution of 3 courses per year in fact shows that they could continue to mount their distinctive program with one fewer faculty member. The committee recognizes the irony of this reward for a sterling contribution. But with a genuine need to reduce faculty, we are forced to come to this recommendation. We hope this reduction will occur either through
retirement or departure.

– Transform Classics from a department to an interdepartmental program and assign the
faculty to another department or departments
– Admit students to the new MA program
– Consider broadening the major still further with a possible new name such as Classical and Ancient Studies
– Reduce faculty from 4 to 3 over time with carefully managed retirements and departures”